Oh my, after nearly a year, I finally got around to putting together videos of the last two days of our trip last year. I was motivated to finally do this because…we’re going to Baxter again this year, in about a week and a half! And I couldn’t go on this year’s trip before posting these videos.
Ted’s last post ended on a cliffhanger: “It started snowing soon after we got back. At the time, we had no idea that this was the beginning of a 48-hour winter storm and two days of trail breaking that made the trailbreaking today seem like we were getting towed by a snowmobile.”
Indeed, it snowed about two feet over the next two days of our trip. We skied back to the car through the deep snow and as the blizzard was still blizzarding, though it probably would have been wiser to stay put and wait for the ranger to come up on a snowmobile to break the trail for us. (He did eventually come to break the trail for us about halfway through day five.) Perhaps we’ll be smarter next time. But for now, enjoy some embarrassing videos of us whining about how difficult it is to ski through a lot of heavy snow.
Day 4, March 14: Russell Pond Bunkhouse to South Branch Pond Bunkhouse (9.79 miles)
Day 5, March 15: South Branch Pond Bunkhouse to Matagamon Parking Lot (11.14 miles)
We will try to be better about documenting our trip in a timely fashion this year!
Hey all! It’s not bike touring, but we took our first ever multi-day backcountry ski tour in March, and we wanted to preserve it here on the blog. Enjoy!
Day 0, March 10: Brooklyn to Mt. Chase Lodge
Today was a driving day. I walked Ellie over to K&B’s, who had graciously offered to watch her for the week. When I got back home, I decided it was smart to move our car to the street directly in front of the apartment so we could pack more easily. Fifteen minutes later, we stumble downstairs carrying our backpacks, skis, and the rest of our gear and find a traffic cop looking curiously into our window. It was street sweeping day! Luckily, we got there just in time, and we didn’t get a ticket.
We were on the road by 7:45 or so, and the drive out of the city was blessedly uneventful. We stopped in Portland to grab some lunch around 1:30, and ate at a place called Sillys, which had tasty, but rich and heavy, meal options. However, fatty carbs are just the thing to eat for lots of energy!
Back on the road, we made good time (in next to zero traffic) to our jumping off point: Mt. Chase Lodge, a delightful little guesthouse run by husband and wife team Lindsey and Mike. The lodge had a cozy fireplace in the lower level and the rooms, while not fancy, were everything we needed. There were several other guests there—all snowmobilers. We ate a family style meal cooked by Mike, who is a truly wonderful chef, and who made us a vegan pesto pasta and AMAZING peanut butter chocolate mini lava cakes. Holy moly.
After dinner we went back up to the room, waxed the skis, organized our bags, and filled up our water. Then we boned up on our orienteering skills. This ended up being unnecessary because I had a map downloaded and we always had GPS, but better safe than sorry.
Day 1, March 11:Parking lot to South Branch Pond Bunkhouse (11.27 miles)
We woke up a little before 7 and headed for the shower before other the other guests got in our way. Dani made it. But since we only brought one small bottle of soap, I had to wait and I missed my shot.
When Dani finished showering, she pointed out that I was already in the camping mindset: of course guest house showers have soap in them.
We went down to breakfast, and Mike had made some delightful oatmeal that was vegan friendly, along with scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, and blueberry pancakes. I asked if the pancakes were vegan, and he did that they were not, but that he was happy to whip some vegan pancakes up for us.
So we ate oatmeal and drank coffee with the leftover almond milk we brought from home, and ten minutes later we were each presented with a stack of 3 banana almond flax pancakes. Holy mother of delicious. Judging purely on looks, they were better than the non-vegan pancakes. Judging from the jealous glances of the other guests, I’m not the only one who thought so.
After some more lovely conversation with two ladies from Bar Harbor that we met last night (they told us to avoid Acadia in August and taught us about harvesting and using chaga), we whipped together our things and headed out. It was a half hour drive to the parking lot, and the entire time we were consumed with nerves. What if we got lost? What if our packs were too heavy? What if we made it 9 miles in and just couldn’t go any farther?
We made it to the parking area, put all of our stuff on and in our bags, and set out. And all of our nerves were for nothing. We DO love cross country skiing and we ARE in decent physical shape and while our bags were heavy, we COULD do this.
And man oh man. What a winter wonderland. Snow laden pines, frozen lakes and babbling streams. And complete solitude. Heaven.
The BSP website warns people that snow travel is slower than summer travel, and advised us to plan for 1.5-2 mph. But we found ourselves making excellent time, moving at a 2.5-3 mph clip. The first 9 miles or so were on the tote road, which is the only path in the park that snowmobiles may use. This made for some bumpy, skiddy skiing, but because we didn’t know any better, we didn’t mind at all.
We stopped at Trout Brook farm bunkhouse about 4 miles in to have a snack (we each saved a pancake), and I had to use the restroom. While here, I lived up to my reputation I built on our bike tour and fell over when I stopped moving. Then I got lost skiing around the bunkhouse looking for the toilet. Anyways, I got myself sorted out and we set out on the road again.
After 5 more miles (and 3.5 total skiing hours) we came to Trout Brook Crossing, which was our turnoff from the tote road. We stopped for lunch, and Dani’s idea to put hot water in a thermos full of dehydrated rice, beans, tomatoes, and spices turned out splendidly. It was so nice to have a warm meal in the middle of the day. And a cookie. The cookie was nice too.
After lunch, we headed out toward South Branch Pond, and off the snowmobile path. This was EVEN MORE BEAUTIFUL! But it was also a climb. And the wet snow was really sticking to our skis. I had heard about how miserable this makes skiing, but I hadn’t experienced it for myself yet. And I was muttering to myself because I had noticed it before lunch and I could have applied a new layer of wax each to our skis, but I didn’t. Oh well.
Even with the sticky snow, it was a delight of a ski, even if the first mile and change was the steepest climb of the day. At that point we came to a trail crossing that -when we looked at our map- seemed halfway between the tote road and our campsite. This was strange because we thought we to ski over 5 miles on this leg, and it didn’t make sense. that we were already at the halfway point. But turned out we only had a little over 2 miles to ski! Bonus happy surprise!
We came down a big hill to the campsite and our bunkhouse, which we were sharing with a group of five Mainers. Tom, Brent, Jeff, Bob, and Sherry. They were all friendly and delightful, and we passed the next five hours melting snow for water on the woodstove, playing cards, looking out over the pond (which is a lake to my eye), and just enjoying company.
Dinner tonight was chili, which we forgot to photograph, but it was delicious and spicy. People went to bed early, around 8:30, and before we hit the hay, we went outside one last time to marvel at the sparkling Maine night sky. (And poop. I also went outside to visit the outhouse.) But those stars, friends, those stars…
Day 2, March 12: South Branch Pond Bunkhouse to Russell Pond Bunkhouse (9.62 miles)
We woke up around 7—well, our bunkmates woke up at 7 and started packing and getting ready to go. The bunkhouse is wonderful, but sounds are amplified throughout the place. There is no sleeping in when sharing such a place.
We took our time this morning. It was a little frantic while our bunkmates were packing to leave, but then when they did it was calm and peaceful. We played an Ella and Louis album on a phone and made apple cinnamon oatmeal. After oatmeal we cleaned out our thermoses and made some coffee. After coffee, we filled up the thermoses with our dehydrated rice and beans mix for lunch and added some hot water. It deserves mentioning again and again: Dani’s idea to buy these food thermoses and pack premade dehydrated meals in parchment bags was brilliant and, at a small risk of hyperbole, the most important (controllable) factor in us having a good trip.
We got on the path at about 9:45. Our shoulders were sore, but we otherwise felt pretty good. The day started by skiing across Upper- and Lower- South Branch ponds. It’s a weird feeling to be skiing across a lake, but we had heard at Mt. Chase Lodge that the lakes had 24 inches of ice, so we were pretty safe. It’s also a fun perspective to see the mountains circling the lake from the middle of the lake. We were lucky to be following other people’s tracks, because it otherwise might have been a challenge to find the trail at the other side. There is a tree wrapped in some orange tape that makes the correct exit, but I’m not entirely sure we would have seen it on our own.
On the other side of the lake, the trail became even more beautiful, because instead of following a broader road (even the path after the snowmobile trail yesterday is a road during the summer), we were on a singletrack trail winding through an evergreen and birch forest.
This is also where we learned that backing up on skis with a heavy backpack generally leads to falling. Although, perhaps I give at least me too much credit when I say I “learned” this, because I had to learn a few more times before I really believed it.
We skied for a few miles along beautiful creek. We crossed a lot of small streams, but they all had packed snow bridges that, with one exception, were no problem at all. At one point, some unfortunately-timed wind blew a branchful of snow off of it’s branch and down the back of Danielle’s shirt. Oopsie.
We crossed Pogy pond and stopped for lunch on the other side (about 6 miles in). We packed down some snow, and sat on our bags and ate our rice and beans while looking at Traveler Mountain. This was where our bunkmates from the night before turned around on the day prior, so the only trail we had from this point on was from two people who had done it two days before. We could still see their tracks and still benefited from the trail being broken, but there was a substantial difference in ease of skiing.
Oh, and there was also a substantial difference in elevation after Pogy, too. We climbed 300 or so feet over a little less than 2 miles. As we entered higher elevation, the snow was deeper and fluffier. The blazes on some of the trees were barely above the snowpack. We saw some moose tracks that followed the trail up the hill. Danielle spent much of this part of the trail singing “A Marshmallow World.”
After we got to high point, the snow really started sticking to our skis. At times we’d fall or almost fall because there were clumps of sticky snow essentially serving as brakes on the skis when we tried to push forward. We kept wavering between feeling frustrated because we were getting tired and unhappy and feeling annoyed at ourselves for feeling frustrated while we were in paradise.
9.2 miles in, we saw some buildings of the Russell Pond campsite and we got really excited because we thought we were done. Turns out, though, that the bunkhouse was on the other side of the pond, another half mile away. We got to the bunkhouse at 3:30, and immediately started a fire, but it took the bunkhouse a while to warm up.
The snow at Russell was much deeper, and we had to put on skis any time we wanted to go to the outhouse. We made ourselves a second cup of coffee, and ate two dinners–ramen and a pasta primavera–and played card games. The best part of Russell Bunkhouse was that it had two nice wooden chairs (South Branch only had one), so we pulled them both up to the wood burning stove and had a cozy little heaven all to ourselves.
Day 3, March 13:Exploring around Russell, out to Ledge Falls and back (5.04 miles)
Last night I woke up around 1 am (after going to bed around 10 or so). After peeing, I checked the woodstove and saw that the big log I put in there to last us the night had gone out. In my sleepy haze I decided that it was critical to have a fire going to keep the cabin warm, so I pulled a bunch of bark off another log, tried to start it from the few remaining coals, and when that didn’t work, I got out the firestarter and built a whole new fire.
Then I panicked about cabin monoxide (like we didn’t have the stove going all day) and opened the window in our bedroom. In the morning, the wood had all burned up and the cold air coming in the window had chilled the entire cabin. So… Good call, Ted.
I started another fire in the stove, and started to get breakfast ready (peanut butter and banana oatmeal today). When the fire was going and the oatmeal was ready, I woke up Dani and we ate by the stove — with a quick break to ski to the toilet — and savored the feeling of the cabin warning around us.
Finishing the oatmeal opened up our coffee cups, so Dani made us coffee and cleaned up after breakfast while I started melting snow for water.
Shortly after finishing coffee, we stoked the stove to keep the cabin cozy and headed out for another day of magic. We thought we were going to Wassataquoik Lake, but I took us down the Wassataquoik Stream Trail in the other direction, and we ended up skiing to Ledge Falls. It was a lovely, happy accident.
Today we had to break our own trail for the first time, and it was both difficult and amazing. We averaged about 1 mph the first two miles, but it feels more wild—even though we were still following clear blazes the entire way.
But because we had to find the next blaze and figure out how to get there, we seemed to pay more attention to the wilderness around us. And it felt like we were all alone out in the forest. Gorgeous snow laden trees, elk and moose tracks, partly frozen streams, mountains lost in clouds, and us picking our way through it all. We were higher today, so the snow base was fairly deep even before the 14+ inches of snow that came last week.
At times, we were ducking under pine boughs that I bet are a good 7 feet or more off the trail in the summer. At others we were getting weirded out by skiing through a glen where a family of elk had obviously spent the night and we were worried they’re come back and get annoyed at us for crashing.
After about two miles, we came to a trail junction near the Wassataquoik Stream lean to with an amazing vista of the stream and the North, South and East Turner, and Russell mountains. We saw a sign declaring it was a half mile to Ledge Falls. This gave us a turnaround point at about the right distance, so we decided to go for it. The falls are more impressive when its not winter, I think, but the ski up to the falls traced the bank of the stream and treated us to more mind bending beauty and solitude.
We turned around at the falls and headed home, trying to fix the scene in our heads, or at least the way it made us feel. Because we weren’t breaking trail anymore, we made it home in about half the time. We stopped at the bathroom since we already had our skis on, then returned to our extra cozy and toasty cabin, made coffee and ramen for lunch, mushroom vegetable stew with couscous for dinner, played games, and loved life.
It started snowing soon after we got back. At the time, we had no idea that this was the beginning of a 48-hour winter storm and two days of trail breaking that made the trailbreaking today seem like we were getting towed by a snowmobile.
Bonus day in Luang Prabang! We didn’t want to pack too much into the day; we wanted to relax and wander and simply enjoy one last day in this city we’ve come to love. We slept in until 9 or so, showered, and headed up to the Chang Inn, where we sat on the porch swing, ate chocolate croissants, drank siphon coffee (so cool – see below), and people watched.
After an hour or so, we set off. We tried to sign up for a Lao cooking class (since we enjoyed the weaving class so much), but the one we wanted to do was full. Then we had to go back to the hotel because we were changing rooms (back to our original guesthouse, which also had lovely rooms, just smaller).
Then we headed to get more noodles (fifth-and last-time customers :'(). After lunch we visited the Royal Palace Museum, which was super cool.
It’s a palace built in 1904 where a couple Lao kings lived before the communists took over in 1975. The Lao government restored the palace and opened it to the public in 1995. Every wall in the throne room is filled with the beautiful glass mosaics depicting everyday Lao life like those seen at Wat Xieng Thong.
The throne itself was beautiful, but it was never actually used. Sisavang Vatthana, the last King of Laos, took over in 1959 and commissioned a new throne for his coronation. However, the astronomers (we think?) could not determine an auspicious date for the coronation, and were still trying to decide when he (the king) was forced to abdicate in 1975.
There were two reception rooms, a dining room, and three bedrooms visible to the public filled with original furniture as well as some other royal objects. The bedrooms were surprisingly simple with white walls and sheets, minimal and sleek mid-century furniture, and dark wood mouldings. It was refreshing to see such simplicity where one might expect to see ugly ornate design. No photos were allowed, so the palace’s looks will remain a mystery to you until you visit Luang Prabang! But here are more pictures from our street wandering.
Then we got more coffee from Chang Inn (this time we got a percolator — they had all the different ways to make coffee!) and played the game Set, which has been a consistently entertaining travel game.
Next we headed to the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center to learn more about some of the ethnic groups within Laos (there are 49 main ethnicities consisting of over 160 ethnic groups!) and their traditional crafts. Yet another heavenly place for me — it seems that each of the major people groups in Laos takes textile design very seriously and it was such a lovely experience to learn more about the history behind their craft, as well as to gain more appreciation for the incredible amount of time and creativity that go into making each piece. For example, the H’mong new year celebration is a huge event involving many festivities, including courtship (because the H’mong have a strict prohibition against marrying within one’s own clan and this festival is prime inter-clan mingling time), and mothers will take months to prepare costumes for their sons and daughters. As a perpetual craft-project-quitter, I am so impressed by the patience, diligence, and creativity that are so valued and abundant in this country. Another must-see if you come to Luang Prabang!
After this, we walked through steadily increasing rain back toward town and got drenched. We found respite from the rain at the Ock Pop Tok store, where we agonized for probably an hour over whether we should buy one last hand-woven Lao textile.
Then we got our final Lao meal at the Bamboo Tree. I think we’ll be making a lot of Lao Laap at home. It’s absolutely delicious and fairly simple. I don’t know why it isn’t more popular in the States. Sticky rice, now, that’s more complicated.
Finally, we headed home to pack up for an early start tomorrow. Jan. 12, 2017
Oof, it has been rainy here the past couple days despite a weather guide that looks like this:
Pretty much no rain in January. Because of that weather guide, we decided not to waste space on rain gear for this trip. People who know us well know that we can be stubbornly, unreasonably frugal about weird things, so we’ve been traipsing around getting genuinely drenched for a couple days rather than spending a dollar each on a cheap poncho.
Anyway, this morning was particularly rainy, and in another fit of stubborn unreasonableness, we decided to bike the 6k to the airport at 5:45a in the pitch dark, pouring rain. This was not a great idea. Though the town is well-lit, the outskirts are not, so mix that with soaked and foggy glasses and we were basically riding blind. Traffic was light, though, and somehow we made it, but we got a lot of laughs from the check-in agent and others at the airport. Oh well, we were determined to bike!
We flew to Bangkok and got through immigration in time for the 11a minibus that was scheduled to depart for Koh Chang, just as we’d hoped to do! Ted got money from the ATM while I got our bikes, then we went to buy bus tickets, but they were sold out for 11a, so we’d have to wait until 2p.
However, this turned out to be a very good thing because guess who lost their passport in the middle of one of the world’s busiest airports? After a quick panic attack, Ted ran off in search of his passport. He first went to a “Tourist Police” desk near the cafeteria where the discovery was made, and was told to go to the “Tourist Police” desk.
This was confusing, and he thought he knew where he dropped it — at the ATM machine on the security restricted side of the airport—so he went to the police officer guarding the exit. He obviously wasn’t allowed back in, but the officer was touchingly concerned that Ted lost his passport and directed him to the “question mark,” by which the officer meant the information desk (brief aside: once again, we are so fortunate that English is both our native language and apparently the worldwide travel language, I can’t imagine Ted to trying to find his passport if he only spoke Italian, for example). So he ran up to the information desk, and lo and behold, the woman working there was logging his passport in the lost-and-found ledger. What a stroke of luck!!!
In the past few months, I dropped my phone (with my ID in a pocket on the back) on Flatbush Ave. in Brooklyn and had it returned to me, and Ted dropped his passport in the airport and had it returned. So it seems people are generally good, but I sure hope we’ve learned our lessons about keeping tabs on our stuff, and if not, I hope our luck doesn’t run out soon! Anyway, as Ted’s off searching, I’m just sitting there with our stuff panicking for 15 minutes because we have no way to contact each other, then I see Ted running back to tell me he found it because he knew I’d be sitting there panicking. Phew. That would have ruined the trip.
So instead of cancelling our beach trip and spending the next few days at the embassy trying to replace a passport, we ate and waited around for a few hours, then boarded a minibus for Koh Chang, an island a “5-hour drive” from the Bangkok airport. Eight hours and several inexplicable stops later, we arrived at our guesthouse (our own bungalow!), went out to get food, and went to sleep.
Kuang Si was a nice place to spend a day, but we were excited to get back to Luang Prabang, so we woke up early and quickly packed our bags and ate breakfast.
We were checking out when we found out how pricey the dinners were, and that put us in a bit of a sour mood to start off. It’s not that the extra four dollars per meal is a big deal, we just hate feeling like we’ve been taken for a ride. If the owner had just told us the price of the family dinners when we checked in, everything would have been fine.
Anyways, we hopped on the bikes and started for home. And it was great! The rolly-ness of the hills was even better than the way up and the big climb in the middle felt like nothing! Surprise hard rides are awful (see, e.g., the ride to Pakse) but surprise easy rides are great!
We made great time into town. Since we were fairly certain that our room wouldn’t be ready yet, we made the obvious choice and went straight to our chocolate croissant spot, where we parked our hogs with all the others and enjoyed some post-ride pastry delight.
After we finished, we headed back to our guesthouse (the same one we stayed at before), and found out that Eric was overbooked. But, because he is a good and kind and forthright hotel proprietor, he had booked us a room in the guesthouse next door. He promised us that it was actually a nicer room than those in his guesthouse, but it wasn’t ready.
We had a half hour to kill, and, never being ones to turn down the opportunity for a passion fruit smoothie, we didn’t.
We came back to the guesthouse after the allotted time was up, and our room still wasn’t ready. We sat in the lobby for a while, writing blog posts and catching up on the parts of the internet we missed over the weekend.
Our room was finally ready round about 2:30p, and it was worth the wait. Big and beautiful with a large window overlooking the river. A wonderful shower (the first enclosed shower of the trip – all other showers have been like boat showers, where the whole bathroom is a giant shower), soft towels, pressed white sheets, beautiful wide-plank wood floors, and a high wood ceiling. It was, in short, just a lovely room.
Because the room was so nice, we moved slowly as we were cleaning up and getting ready to go back out. But hunger got the best of us, so soon we were off to Toutu Noodles, where our new best friend remembered us even though we missed Sunday.
After this latest bowl of heaven, we wandered around the town a little more, spending a fair amount of time browsing the store of a H’mong lady who repurposes old traditional clothing into beautiful tapestries, pillowcases, bags, etc. We also signed up to take a day-long class tomorrow on traditional Laos weaving and dying techniques at Ock Pop Tok, a social enterprise that supports local weavers and teaches classes on traditional Laos weaving. It’s a great organization, check it out!
At dinner time, we wandered over to Tamarind, a restaurant well known for preparing excellent versions of traditional Lao dishes. We got a seat right by the river and shared a some buffalo laap and a taster plate including Lao sausage, traditional Luang Prabang stew, chili paste, dried Mekong River weed, and a bamboo salad. Everything was delicious, including the cucumber-mint mojitos and the Mekong Sunset, a drink made with local rice whiskey.
After dinner we walked back to the hotel and quickly fell asleep.
Jan. 10, 2017
We woke up this morning and pretty quickly decided we wanted another day in Luang Prabang, so we decided that we would try to change our flight if there was no change fee. Turns out it’s extraordinarily simple to change your flight with Lao Airlines – you just send an email and they send you a new itinerary for your chosen time, no fee.
We headed to breakfast at a little coffee shop and got an approximation of a breakfast burrito and lattes with fun latte art, then headed to Ock Pop Tok’s store in town to catch a tuk tuk ride to our full-day weaving and dying workshop at the living arts center just outside of town center.
We were quickly greeted by our instructor for the day, master weaver Sengjan, and given some silk worm poo tea, which tasted better than its name suggested, but really was worm poo. Our instructor then brought us through the process of textile creation, from silk production to weaving. First she showed us a rice basket full of silk worms and explained the lifecycle to us, as well as the types of silk that are produced. She showed us raw and refined silk, and eri silk, a thicker yarn-like silk used for winter scarves. Then we learned about the natural dyes that are traditionally used in Laos to dye thread and textiles. They use things such as seeds from the annato tree, turmeric and beet root, jackfruit and Sappan wood, and indigo leaves to dye.
We then got to tour the workshop where Ock Pop Tok employs several master weavers to weave on their looms and sell their creations at very fair prices (read: prices tourists think are far too expensive, but vastly underpriced when you consider the work each piece takes). We observed some simple weaving in a village a couple days ago, but the things these ladies were weaving were much more ornate and time consuming. One type of weaving, called discontinuous supplementary weft weaving, requires women to hand weave individual patterns with multiple colors per row. It takes a full day for a master weaver to finish just 10-15cm, and their creations generally end up being nearly 2m long. Another technique called Ikat, the looks of which have been poorly imitated in the west over the last few years, requires women to lay out a pattern with silk thread, cover select parts with plastic, resist dye the exposed thread, roll this thread onto spools, then weave the piece together. It’s extremely hard to get right, and it was super impressive to watch a young master weaver at work on an ikat piece. Finally, we got to see someone weaving raw silk, which is harder to work with, produces a transparent look, and is used in some impressive pieces around the shop.
Then we headed over to where a Hmong woman worked on a traditional Hmong textile, painting a wax pattern on hemp cloth that would later be dyed in indigo, then boiled to remove the wax and reveal a striking pattern. Here she is painting, then the before and after of a piece of hemp cloth, then a traditional Mong Njua (a Hmong subgroup) skirt, where you can see the batik on cotton with red fabric sewn over it in patterns.
So beautiful, right?! I have a small textile obsession, so I’m in heaven at this point.
Now it’s our turn! We used huge bamboo rods to pull bundles of annato seeds from trees, chopped jackfruit and sappan tree wood, and ground up indigo and annato with mortar and pestle before boiling some cloth napkins in various pots of natural dye. Interestingly, indigo imparts a sea green color when just ground and mixed with water, and a rich indigo color when mixed with ash and allowed to ferment.
Then we had a delicious lunch of chicken laap, seaweed soup, and bamboo salad. We were in the class with a French teacher who lives on the little-known French island of Reunión and an American attorney who is a policy advocate who protested the war in the 60s and will be at the march on the 21st, so we talked about American politics the whole time. Poor French guy, but he’s a social justice-oriented person, so he seemed pretty happy to listen. And it’s always nice to show people who aren’t from the US that we weren’t all duped into voting for a dim-witted fascist egomaniac and that many of us are just as outraged and dumbfounded as everyone else in the world.
In the afternoon, we started weaving! We started by spinning a skein of silk onto bamboo spools. Then we sat at a loom, and under the close supervision of master weavers, wove placemats! I chose a simple geometric motif, and Ted chose a Naga motif. Nagas are mythological water serpents that are represented in a lot of regional folk tales and legends.
The hard part, which is designing the pattern and laying out a template using 720 vertical strings and a varying number of horizontal strings tied into circles, was done for us and takes years to learn. The process for weaving patterns is so cool, but hard to describe, so check out our Instagram for a video of Ted doing it.
After we got back to town, we ate for the fourth time at our favorite noodle place (the proprietor laughed at us each time we entered), then headed to our hotel for the night.
We woke up relatively early this morning; we had a date with some waterfalls 30km outside of town today, so we had to pack up all of our stuff. This posed just a bit of problem, because the clothes we washed two nights ago when we arrived were still damp. Humidity. It’s a kick in the hotel-bathroom-sink-laundry pants.
So we decided to wrap up the damp clothes and hope for the best. We left our bags and bikes with Eric, the delightful owner of our guesthouse. Since the ride was only 30k, we decided to take off in the afternoon, and first thing in the morning was a slow boat up the Mekong to the Pak Ou caves.
We thought about getting coffee at the shop right across from the dock, but there were no chocolate croissants there, so…yeah. After a quick jog we were back at the pier on time and ready to get on the boat.
It was really a fleet of small boats with six passengers on each. The boats had what seemed to be minivan-style bucket seats, and they were comfy and roomy.
Travelling upriver, we were treated to wonderful greenery on either side of the river (which, by the way, is enormous). Rolling hillsides, small villages, buffalo that somehow ended up on an island in the middle of the river. All of the sights.
After an hour or so, we stopped for fifteen minutes at “whiskey village,” a little market aimed solely at tourists on these boats. We tried a few types of locally made rice whiskey, marveled at the “medicine” whiskey (which was infused with snakes, scorpions, and all matter of yuck), and passed judgment on the tourist who threw a small fit about having to pay a quarter to use the restroom. Entitled jerk.
Back in the boats, we made it up to Pak Ou. There were two caves completely full of little Buddha statues. Back when the main Laos religion was a form of nature worship, the caves were thought to house a river spirit. After converting to Buddhism centuries and centuries ago, the caves became part of the royal family’s new year ceremonies. And people still visit the caves to place new Buddha statues.
After exploring the caves, we got back on the boat and headed back to town. As soon as we got to town, we walked to our new favorite noodle soup place for lunch. The proprietor recognized us gave us a big smile for being repeat customers.
Then after lunch we suited up and got back on the bikes to ride out to Tad Kuang Si. It was a beautiful ride; I might even go as far as to say it was the prettiest ride of our trip. Verdant mountains and lovely quaint villages.
It’s true that there was a significant amount of traffic (renting a motorbike or booking a van are the most popular ways to visit the falls), but it came in waves and we had stretches of time to relax and enjoy the road.
The ride had two main climbs, one in the middle and one to get up to the falls, but they weren’t too bad. It was in many ways the perfect type of ride: rolling hills with slightly more up than down every time the hills rolled (can I use the expression like that?) so we were steadily climbing but it felt like we were going as much or more down than up.
I’m not sure that made any sense at all, but if not, the main take away is that it was a pleasant ride. Except for the fact that Dani’s bike was having shifting problems and she was forced to ride up some of those hills in a harder gear than she would have liked.
We made it to the town just before the waterfall and after some confusion stemming from a complete lack of signage, we found our home for the next two nights: Vanvisa at the Falls.
Vanvisa was . . . mixed. The grounds were absolutely beautiful; it sat right on a miniature version of the gorgeous waterfall we came to see. The owner was an adorably gregarious Lao woman who was friendly and charming and cooked traditional Lao family meals for all of the guests every night.
The downsides were that it was by far the most expensive guesthouse of the trip and the room was not wonderful. The whole room was damp and mildewy, there were bloodstains on the sheets, no wifi, dirt and the poop of some small animal (?) falling from the ceiling, and the temperamental shower liked to switch from freezing to scalding without any notice.
We immediately changed to go swimming, but by the time we made it down to the falls there were: (1) a family having a picnic playing loud, bad music and throwing trash into the river, and (2) four small naked Lao boys running around and jumping into the water.
I like swimming though. So I jumped in and swam around for a bit before we headed back to the room.
We had family dinner (which we found out later was also absurdly expensive), and it was decent. There wasn’t a lot of food to go around. Some so so chicken wings, beans with an egg topping, soup, and sticky rice.
After dinner, we went to bed.
Jan. 8, 2017
Today was waterfall day!
We woke up and ate a pretty good breakfast (homemade passion fruit jam!) and then we walked to the waterfall.
Kuang Si is a series of falls over limestone rocks. The water picks up calcium carbonate from the limestone, which gives the water a stunning blue color. The local story of the falls is that a wise old man dug a cave and beckoned the Earth’s water to come forth. When the water started to flow, a golden deer came and took up residence under the falls, giving the water it’s color. Kuang Si means “deer dig.”
On the walk to the falls we went through a moon bear sanctuary. Moon bears are endangered because Chinese traditional medicine thinks that bear bile gives strength. There were some pretty terrible pictures of bile farms where bears are keep in tiny cages for years and years and harvested for bile every day.
People can be terrible.
Anyway, the falls were beautiful. A series of smaller cascades leading up to the main falls.
Then we climbed up the top of the falls (a steep, slippery trail) and saw an amazing view of the surrounding area.
We continued about 3km uphill to the source of the falls and the fabled deer cave. The cave was enormous, and we were the only two people to go in so early. The man gave us a flashlights to help explore. There were beautiful sparkly stalactites and more buddhas sprinkled throughout. We went in bit by bit, but we didn’t make it the whole 100m to the back because I got claustrophobic and begged Dani to leave. I just can’t think of something more terrifying than somehow getting trapped in a cave forever.
Then we visited the source of the spring, which conveniently had a restaurant right next to it. The guy running the restaurant had a challenge for me: walk across the river on a log without falling in (I got two tries) and he would buy me a beer. If I fell in, I owed him a beer. I didn’t even WANT a beer, but I couldn’t turn down the challenge. He showed me how it was done and made it look so so easy. I took my turn, and it didn’t go as well.
Since I was already in the river, Dani joined me (she was smart enough to have her swimsuit on before she got in though) we swam for a bit. We had the whole place to ourselves and it was lovely. They even had a rope swing into the river that I used again and again and again.
Then other people started showing up (I’m glad we got such an early start!), so we got out of the water, shared a plate of fried rice, and started back down.
We took a wrong turn on the way back and ended up walking to the village and not to the falls. On the way, we heard a loud, close gunshot. Dani squealed, ducked, and covered; I looked around confused. Then I almost got hit in the head by a couple of dead birds falling from the sky. A few seconds later, a smiling Lao man walked out of the woods with a shotgun and picked up his kill. So that happened.
After we got back to town, we relaxed at the hotel for a bit and then went to town where we got barbequed chicken, spicy papaya salad, and some fresh coconut juice.
Then we walked back into the park to sit and gaze at the beautiful waterfalls, which were a deeper shade of aqua in the late afternoon.
Later we ate another family dinner, with salad (with an amazing dressing), soup, and fried noodles. They brought out some offals, too, and we each took a bite expecting meat and Dani almost vomited because of the surprise of chomping into a chalky, gamey organ. Again, our most expensive dinner of the trip, and half as filling and delicious and four times the price of our favorite noodle place back in Luang Prabang. Now we know to always ask the price (and not to eat unidentified meat products)!
Tomorrow we bike back to Luang Prabang for another day before we head off to Thailand!
We woke up, ate hotel breakfast, and packed up to ride to the airport. I was feeling nauseated today (again about a day behind Ted), so we didn’t spend any time exploring Pakse. We did stop by Ted’s Italian restaurant to see if they were open for another plate of bolognese, but they weren’t.
When we got to the airport, we packed up the bikes, checked them in, and sat around for a long time. Then we had two uneventful flights and landed in Luang Prabang just after sunset. As we approached Luang Prabang by plane, the scenery became stunning. Rolling green mountains with rivers running through them and small villages dotted throughout. Our bikes made it through to Luang Prabang unharmed, and we put them together efficiently as many people gathered around to watch in amazement. We’ve got a really good system. We’ve each adopted our own responsibilities, and we can unpack and assemble our bikes and pack our bags without saying a word to each other and without any idle time (from Ted: although I haven’t quite figured out how to get the seats at the correct angle without testing them, so they were a little uncomfortably . . . up for the ride into town).
Then we set off for our hotel in Luang Prabang, just 6k from the airport. It’s so much fun to ride our bikes to and from the airport. It feels so efficient: We were able to leave before the vast majority of people on our flight were able to arrange a more expensive airport transfer.
It started sprinkling on our ride, which sort of added to the charm of this gorgeous city we were cycling into. At night, many streets are lined with twinkle lights and paper lanterns, people are wandering by foot and bike through the sinuous streets and alleys, and the beautiful Lao French colonial architecture is striking despite the darkness. And oh my goodness, this city is bursting with tourists – very different from anything we saw in southern Laos.
We got to the adorable Khemkong View hotel on the Mekong, and checked in to a tiny room with a French flair. We immediately went out to explore the city and find some food. I was feeling sick all day, but got my appetite back and had a specific craving for chicken vindaloo, so we went out in search of it. Ted found it on the menu at a very crowded restaurant. After we ordered, a couple from Northern California asked to share our table because it was so crowded. We had a nice conversation with them and were happy to have the company. Ted had a new, obliging audience for his soapbox speeches on the failure of democracy, the imminent fall of the republic, and the ills of gerrymandering. Real lighthearted stuff, but they were sympathetic.
Afterwards, we went to a gorgeous bar / restaurant called Tangor that we were told had delicious cocktails, and ordered what turned out to be delicious cocktails. I ordered a chocolatey espresso beverage and Ted ordered a mojito. We also got ceviche, a Laos interpretation that replaces cilantro with lemongrass. It was wonderful! The bar also looked like it was plucked out of Brooklyn. Most of the waitstaff were French men with handlebar moustaches and hipstery clothing. The owner is French, too. Again, a very different scene from southern Laos, but not unwelcome!
After this, we wandered the main street, Th Sakkarin, a bit. There weren’t a ton of people out thanks to the light sprinkle. Then to bed, but I struggled to fall asleep thanks to the espresso.
Jan. 6th, 2017
I heard a lot about the abundance of good chocolate croissants and quality coffee here in Luang Prabang, so we headed to Le Banneton cafe to get breakfast. Delicious, as expected! This is the first chocolate I’ve had since the Kit-Kat we got on the airplane over, which must be some kind of record for me. We then went to Wat Xieng Thong, a famous 450-year-old temple with many glass mosaics, to explore. Everything was gilded and intricately designed.
The craftsmanship puts into stark relief all of these slapdash modern buildings made of cheap materials we’re throwing up around urban areas in America. They’ll throw some cheap, plastic looking building up next to these beautiful brownstones in our neighborhood and it just makes you wonder why people don’t build things to last anymore.
Anyway, then we headed to one of the two bamboo bridges in town to cross over to a local village. It was an experience very much geared toward tourists who wanted a “taste of local life” or whatever, but we still enjoyed it despite its voyeuristic nature. It helps bring income to the village, so hopefully it’s more good than bad. And I kept telling myself that there are walking tours of our neighborhood in Brooklyn that essentially serve the same purpose, and they don’t bother me, so perhaps this doesn’t bother the people living in this village?
We came across some ladies weaving beautiful silk scarves about 300m in. Their workshop was in a stilted, open-air wooden structure on the Mekong — some enviable working conditions! Each weaver can complete three of the simpler scarves in a day. And this doesn’t include the time spent spinning and dying the silk thread with natural dyes. So much work goes into each hand-woven piece, and yet you’ll see people aggressively haggling for scarves at the market. Such a shame — these artists deserve every kip!
We wandered around the village a bit more, then headed back to wander around Luang Prabang. As gorgeous as this city was at night, it’s triple gorgeous during the day. The architecture! The winding streets! The flora! It is paradise. We had heard that some self-proclaimed “experienced backpackers” think Luang Prabang is a little fake and overrun with tourists — like Lao Disneyland — but first of all, these vagabonds are also tourists so where do they get off being so judgmental, and second, there are Lao people living and working here so it’s a little insensitive and ignorant to call their lives fake. Whatever this city is, we love it all the same. And frankly, I’m getting a little sick of the sanctimonious attitudes of a lot of so-called experienced backpackers.
We got a little hungry wandering the streets, so Ted suggested that we eat at this hole-in-the-wall noodle restaurant. Every time we’ve walked by, we’ve seen young, hip Chinese tourists eating here, which I take as a good sign. This place is easy to miss and has literally five things on the menu: Three types of noodle soup (beef, chicken, or pork) and two other types of soup. No prices. When we got our soup, we quickly realized that this was the best noodle soup we’ve had in the whole country, by a mile! As we sat in the restaurant, several western tourists passed by and were apparently put off by the (lack of a) menu because they didn’t stop in. But I wished I could convey to them somehow that they should eat here. It was so incredibly delicious. So if you’re ever in Luang Prabang and want authentic noodle soup, eat at Toutu Restaurant.
Next we got our very favorite beverage — a passion fruit smoothie — and climbed Phou Si, a small mountain/temple in the middle of town. There were incredible views in all directions at the top, and lots of people taking selfies. We went down on the other side, and saw a bunch of Buddhas covered in gold leaf, a cave, and an imprint of Buddha’s foot.
We then walked along the Nam Khan river and back towards the Th Sakkarin, and then stopped in at Chang Hotel to get some coffee and a delicious almond croissant for a snack. The pastry scene here is making life very nice.
After a little more wandering, which I could do for days here without any other agenda, we hopped on our bikes to go to Ted’s special request for dinner, a place called “Secret Pizza.” That’s right, more Italian food. I’ll allow it, though, because he acquiesces to all of my whims. And this place is pretty cool. An expat missed good pizza, so he built a brick oven and started making pizzas in his backyard for other expats, and word got out that they were good. Tourists slowly started trickling in, then trip advisor and lonely planet got wind of the place, and, well, it’s no longer a secret. It was phenomenal thin crust pizza in a beautiful setting, so it’s no wonder it is so popular despite the fact that it’s not walking distance from old town.
We then went to the night handicrafts and food market (and I got a piece of chocolate cake!!!), then we headed home and went to bed after a long, exhausting day. Half a day here, then off to Kuang Si Waterfall tomorrow!
But I guess I can throw a little more detail in here, just to keep the pictures company.
We woke up bright and early, hoping to get a quick breakfast and an early start, since we had to ride 88k, or 55 miles into Pakse. We packed our things, checked out of our guesthouse, and wandered over to the place where we stopped for dinner last night. Danielle loved her vegetable omelet sandwich, so we thought we’d give it another go.
Turns out the women who runs the Fandee Guesthouse is not a morning person, so she was still in bed. We sat at the big table on the porch with Thomas, a freelance designer (originally from France, but has been in Germany for several years) who is in Laos as he waits for an order of his new design of lamps to be produced in Thailand, after which he will take them to a festival in Australia.
We told him that we were biking to Pakse today, and he told us that aside from a hill climbing out of town, it was mostly downhill the entire way.
I’m going to interrupt this narrative with a quick PSA. NEVER say something like this to a cyclist (especially if they’re touring) unless you KNOW for SURE that it’s true.
On with the program: we were shortly joined by another German traveler named Merle (which, as it turns out, is pronounced nothing like it is spelled), and since our prospective breakfast cook was still sleeping, we decided to walk back to our guesthouse and eat there. We both had omelet sandwiches, which were pretty decent, and I had a smoothie, since that seemed to be the one thing that I could eat without making myself feel ill.
Then we said goodbye to our new friends, saddled up, and hit the road around 8:45a.
Remember that “hill out of town”? Well that hill was a hot, steep, heck-of-a-climb, six-mile, thousand feet of elevation hill. Goodness gracious. About a third of the way up, I started feeling ill again. I felt like I had to vomit and like my legs had no power. I thought about just vomiting and getting it over with, but I had barely eaten anything the day before and I knew I still had over 50 miles left, and I thought that it was a better idea to try to keep the food down so my body could have a little fuel for the ride.
After the climb, we were expecting lots and lots of downhill. And we had a nice descent, which was wonderful for me, before entering into some flats/rolling hills. After about 12 miles, I was feeling absolutely miserable, so we pulled over at a gas station and sat on a bench in the shade, drank a bit of water, and tried to cool off (did I mention that this was by far the hottest riding day we’ve had so far?). I also chewed on some Tums, hoping it would quell my tummy.
While we were sitting there, the guys working the pumps at the station brought us over a big ol’ papaya and gave it to us. How nice! I wish I could have enjoyed it more, but Dani ate half of it before wrapping up the other half for later. The next 12 km were pretty much straight downhill (yay!) but they also gave us one of the highlights of the trip: Katu textiles.
We were cruising down the hill when we passed a sign telling us that there was a place to buy handmade textiles straight from the artisans, and we had to stop. Dani had been noticing the beautiful fabrics used by many of the restaurants on the plateau AND she loves textiles in general, so this was her dream come true. There were maybe half a dozen teenage to elderly women sitting in a hut FULL of the fabrics they were making by hand. We didn’t feel comfortable taking pictures inside, but they were using what I believe is called a “backstrap” loom, which sat on top of their legs (and around their back) as they sat on the floor.
Dani was in heaven, quickly compiling a significant pile of “favorites,” but the truth is that they were all beautiful. And we felt good buying them straight from the source. We probably could have haggled the prices a little bit lower, but these ladies were artists and their art was amazing, and it just felt wrong to trivialize it by trying to bargain down the price.
We rode out of there happy, and glided through the rest of the downhill. But then the downhill ended.
At this point we had ridden a little over 30 miles, and looking at our map app we had 10 miles of uphill and then 14 miles of down to finish the day. That’s right, another 10 miles of uphill during the hottest part of the day. Let’s just revisit that PSA above for a moment. We thought we were going to have a nice mostly downhill day, but we were misled (out of no animosity I’m sure, of course, but it still was pretty sad when we realized it).
So we started climbing. Slowly by slowely, stopping frequently when we found a spot of shade on the road. The miles gradually fell away until we had just 4 left, going up a steeper hill. We stopped pretty much every mile of these last four. Like I said: oof.
But then we made it to the top. We reached the intersection with Rt. 16, which would take us to Pakse, and we turned right and downhill and oh how we flew! What joy and relief! After taking an hour to ride 4 miles, we rode the next three in roughly 10 minutes, which brought us to Bachieng Café and Restaurant (the place we loved so much on the way up).
We had water and two more bowls of beef noodle stew. I was able to eat the whole bowl and I didn’t feel too shabby afterward, which was a great sign that I was on the mend. After about a half hour we sped the last 10 miles or so into town.
We struggled to find our guesthouse for a bit, but find it we did, and we were soon checked in, showered, and happy.
And hungry. I was apparently fully recovered, and my body seemed to suddenly realize that it hadn’t been eating much over the previous two days. So even though we had that bowl of stew just a couple of hours earlier, I was ravenous.
I hopped on Tripadvisor to see if I could find a good place, and strangest thing, apparently an Italian man had settled in Pakse some years ago and opened an Italian restaurant that rivaled those of his home in Tuscany.
Danielle typically does not like doing things like eating Italian food while in Laos (she once called me a traitor for suggesting something like this), but I whined and wheedled and eventually wore her down. We starting walking the 4km to the restaurant, but soon caught a tuk tuk to take us the rest of the way.
Oh my sweet delight, the bolognese was freaking amazing. Out of this world. It was $8.50, which was at least double the price of a Laos meal, but less than half of what I would pay in New York for something that would probably be less good. It was rich and flavorful… and it was generously covered with melty parmesan cheese. Cheese. I haven’t had cheese since December 23rd. It’s still delicious.
Dani had a lovely tuna pasta and we had some homemade ice cream(!) for dessert, but—as has been the case—she seemed to be about 12-24 hours behind me in the food-poisoning progression. I was feeling completely recovered, but she was starting to feel off.
So we got the tuk tuk back to the hotel and fell asleep, hoping that Dani would feel better in the morning. We fly to Luang Prabang tomorrow.
(ps. Sorry for the long delay between posts. We got distracted by being in Luang Prabang, and then we spent the weekend in a place without wifi, we’ll try to catch up in the next few days.)
If there was ever a time we needed a short, no-wind, downhill day, today was that time. Dani ended up following me down the food-poisoning path last night, so we weren’t in the best of moods when we woke up.
We started very slowly. We didn’t seem to be actively suffering as much this morning (i.e., we weren’t making frequent trips to the restroom), but our bodies seriously ached. We both felt lethargic and struggled to get moving. Doing small tasks to prepare to go was exhausting and required many breaks of lying down completely still. We had also completely lost our appetites, something that anyone who knows us knows is as common as Halley’s Comet, but forced ourselves to eat a tiny banana to have some small amount of energy for the ride.
Eventually we got ourselves out of bed and packed our things. We left around 11am, or about 3 hours later than normal.
But we were fortunate. Today was always going to be a short day, just 20 miles, and knowing that was a big reason we were able to convince ourselves to get on our bikes. But what we didn’t know is that pretty much the entire ride was downhill. Good steep downhill too. We covered the first fifteen miles in about 50 minutes, and for long stretches, we didn’t even have to pedal.
Which was a good thing, because when we DID have to pedal, my legs felt like they were about to fall off. Maybe that had something to do with throwing up (or otherwise expelling) everything I had eaten in the previous 24-48 hours.
In any case, we made great time to Tad Lo, getting here around 12:20p. We had to find a place to sleep, and we were quickly sold on a guesthouse with cute rooms and a PORCH with HAMMOCKS for $8.50.
Then we lay in the hammocks for an hour or so.
At this point we felt like we had to go exploring, both because we came here to check out the waterfalls in town and because no matter how we were feeling, we really had to eat something.
So we decided that if we were leaving our happy place, we might as well see some of the waterfalls the town is named for (I might be wrong about this, but I’m pretty sure “Tad” means waterfall Lao). We crawled out of the hammocks, got ourselves together, and walked for about twenty minutes to the southern Tad Lo falls. Longest twenty minutes ever. They were nice, and to our chagrin, they were swimmable. It looked like nice swimming too. But neither of us had our suits (Dani asked if we should wear them, and I confidently said no), and even if we did, I don’t think we would have felt up for swimming anyway.
So we walked down a little path from the falls that let us out at Tad Lo Lodge, the swankiest place in town. We didn’t really enjoy the milieu, but we liked the deck overlooking the river, and we were wary of food in general, so we thought swanky was a safe bet. Also, pro tip: we saw this in Costa Rica too, but if you go to a touristy-type swanky place in foreign country and then order traditional food of said country, the price is actually pretty reasonable. So our meals were about a third as expensive as the western food on the menu.
But, we were both feeling so queasy that, for the first time in my memory, neither of us finished our food. Dani has instilled in me a strong “clean plate club” ethic. But today we just couldn’t. Ugh.
After lunch, we walked back to our hotel and got back into the hammocks, lazily looking out on a field where a family herded their cattle.
After a few more hours, we felt a little better, so we decide to venture out once again. We walked across the river, checked out the northern falls, and stopped in at a cute little guesthouse for a fruit smoothie and an vegetable omelet sandwich.
Then we made it back to the hotel for the night, watched a movie on our laptop (sick day! And Dani let me choose, so obviously it was a Disney movie), and hunkered down for bed just before 9p.
Tomorrow is a long day for us. 55 miles, and I don’t think we’ll have the same downhill luck. But we have a plane to catch the next day, so we don’t really have any option except to make it. So hopefully a few meals and another good night of sleep will carry us through.
We woke up before sunrise again, which was perfect because we wanted to get an early start. We ate yummy buffet breakfast (but was it yummy?? WAS IT? Cue horror film music), packed, and headed out. We thought we were at the top of the Plateau at this hotel, but we were wrong – 10 more miles to the top, and a strong headwind to combat on the way. We came across the Tad Fane waterfalls a few miles in, and also the Tad Fane resort, which we have a booking for in 2 nights. Only…it’s in the wrong place. You see, booking.com, maps.me, and google maps all think Tad Fane Resort is 27k down the Plateau from where we stood. We are doing a loop, so it is actually not possible for us to come back up here to stay. I don’t want to climb the plateau again, and we have to catch a flight the day after we were supposed to stay here, so it would be hard for us to cycle 40k in the morning compared to the 13k we expected. Here’s where it is compared to where the world thinks it is, and the white road down from Bachieng is where we’ll come from.
So we’re in disputes with booking.com to get free cancellation for this place. At any rate, it was gorgeous – set in the jungle and the restaurant overlooks a waterfall.
We moved along to climb to the top of the plateau. We saw five other cyclists! Two touring and three on day rides. Three were coming the opposite direction, and we were jealous of their luck with the wind.
At the top, we rewarded ourselves with lattes, and Ted complained about an upset stomach after we set off again. He blamed it on drinking coffee on an empty stomach. We made a close to 90 degree turn, and the wind seemed to turn with us (aka, still against us). We were finally going downhill, but pedaling hard against the wind!
Now for one of the top 10 most awkward (but also wonderful) experiences either of us has ever had. We stopped at what we thought was a restaurant to get noodle soup. It was a giant tent with lots of tables and chairs and people eating. A lot of restaurants here don’t have signs, and in our experience, the restaurants without signs have been the best ones. In retrospect, the tent should have told us it was a temporary situation, but we were hungry and not thinking, I guess.
Anyway, we roll up and people are staring at us, as they have at every restaurant we’ve gone to because we’re a couple westerners riding bikes around the Lao countryside. This is legitimately novel, so we’ve come to expect stares.
We sat down at a table, and a moment later, a gentleman who speaks very good English comes up to introduce himself and explains that we just sat down at a funeral celebration. Embarrassed, we apologize profusely, get up, and attempt to excuse ourselves, but he says, “no, please join us for lunch!” As awkward as it felt to stay, it felt even more awkward to refuse his invitation, so we sat back down.
Soon, a few children brought us out fish soup, Lao Laap, sticky rice, lettuce, clementines, ice, and water. Wow! We ate and talked to this kind man. He is a biology teacher at a teacher’s college in Pakse. He’s Ted’s age, and he taught himself English by reading books written in English and making use of the dictionary. Smart guy, and somehow he’s single!
The laap was mostly composed of offals, which are not fun to look at, but taste basically like the animal they came from. Anyway, after we got past the mental block of eating entrails and organs, the food was delicious! We tried to keep the conversation flowing, but we both just felt so embarrassed for imposing on a funeral celebration that we probably weren’t great conversationalists. When it was time to leave, our new friend brought us out a bag of snacks for the road! Everyone has been so incredibly kind on this trip, but this was just so far beyond.
The food seemed to accelerate Ted’s stomach issues, though, and the next 10k were rough for him. We got to a coffee resort, and Ted had to spend a lot of time in the restroom as I sipped a latte. Poor guy. It was only 3k to our guesthouse, so we got back on the road and have been hunkered down at a guesthouse for about 6 hours. Ted slept (and did some other things) and seems to be on the mend, but I seem to be following his path, just 12 hours delayed. The only culprit we can identify is that breakfast buffet this morning. It couldn’t be the offals, because Ted was feeling ill prior to that. Falls View resort man, nice rooms and a beautiful setting, but they HAVE to do something about their kitchen.
We got an early start today because we were anticipating a long climb (it ended up being about 3000 feet over 25 miles of continuous climbing) up the Bolaven plateau and we wanted plenty of time at these nice bungalows we booked for New Year’s Eve overlooking a waterfall called Tad E Tu. On our way to take the ferryback over the Mekong, we stopped at a guesthouse/restaurant called Champasak with Love and had a lovely “American Breakfast” with eggs, bread, bacon, and an Americano. We normally wouldn’t get American food here, but Laotian restaurants don’t usually serve coffee (unless it’s Nescafé instant coffee or this Dao instant coffee with milk powder and a ton of sugar mixed in – neither of which are very good), which we really like to have to start our day. Everything was great.
We continued to the ferry port and were directed onto a makeshift catamaran composed of two normal ferry boats (long, thin wooden boats that look similar to canoes) that were held together by a bunch of two-by-fours that formed a deck. At first glance, this did not appear to be seaworthy, but we figured it must work if they boarded us. We took off, then quickly turned back around to pick up another passenger. Another 40 passengers, really: We picked up a man bringing ducks and chickens to the market on the other side of the river. Once they boarded, we took off, and the gentleman with the poultry began to negotiate a barter for his transfer. They landed on two bundles of ducks (about 4 ducks a bundle?) which seemed like a hefty price given that we paid only $2.50 per person.
I was fascinated by this funny boat and impressed by the skill with which our captain drove it. We made it across to Don Muang and started our ride.
After about 5k of pothole-filled road, we got back on the very nicely paved highway 13 and continued toward Pakse, the regional capital. The traffic really picked up on this stretch of 13, getting progressively heavier as we neared town. There was also a lot of dust from roadwork and pollution from all of the traffic (no emissions restrictions here, and lots of old cars, motorbikes, and trucks), so we used our Buffs as face masks and chugged along.
We stopped to pee at a gas station before our turn and saw this funny dog awkwardly napping.
We quickly made it to our turnoff after our break. We had hopes that traffic would die down a bit, but it did not. They are extending this road from two to four lanes, but for now, there’s just a dirt road off to each side in various stages of construction, and with a lot of heavy machinery kicking up dust and also a lot of dump truck traffic carrying dirt and rocks. This along with a ton of tourism traffic and industrial traffic (there are large coffee, bottled water, furniture, etc. factories up this road) made for a not so pleasant ride. Plus, we were now climbing the plateau at a whopping 7-8 miles an hour, which extended the unpleasantness. We experimented with riding on the dirt side road, but it was bumpy and had a lot of gaps, so we took our chances on the actual road.
The traffic seemed to come in waves and moved in a predictable fashion: A huge, slow truck would hold up a line of fancy SUVs and buses filled with tourists, who would each be trying to pass each other and the massive truck, but once these lines of traffic passed, it would be relatively calm for a couple minutes, maybe just a few motorbikes. The scariest bits were when this was happening on our side of the road and the other side of the road, which led to some close passes. Most people slowed down for us, though. The newish minibuses and the coach buses did not slow down at all, though.
We came across this coffee shop / restaurant called Bachieng café, and I was eager for a break from the traffic, so we stopped. They have these beautiful rotted wood tables and benches, fancy landscaping, and a man-made waterfall outside – definitely a place to attract tourists. We ordered some delicious noodle soup and excellent coffee and sat by the waterfall. This place was filled with Chinese tourists in fancy Lexus and Toyota SUVs. I imagine people must be really confused about why we are biking around, getting covered in sweat and dirt, when there are so many perfectly good cars around. Meanwhile, I wonder what’s the point of driving from tourist attraction to tourist attraction when all of the good stuff is in between! Well, except for the traffic.
Anyway, we lingered here for a while, then headed out to keep climbing the plateau. It was fun to watch and feel the climate and scenery subtly change. We entered a banana growing region and got some roadside bananas, then entered the coffee growing region and were treated to some gorgeous, sweeping views of the countryside. I don’t have any pictures, though, because the traffic was too thick to safely take them. It started gently raining, which was actually quite nice as it settled the dust and pollution.
The schools here look so much like the schools in Zambia:
After a bit more chugging, we made it to our home for the night, the Falls View Resort. Sounds and looks fancy, but a room with breakfast included is $50/night, which is pricey for the region, but less than our rent in Brooklyn, so we figured we could splurge for New Years. After settling in, we ventured down to the bottom of the falls and decided that we should probably spend an extra night here in order to have enough time to swim. We had free cancellation on our next hotel, and we padded an extra day at a different waterfall that doesn’t appear to allow swimming, so we could make it work. Ted jumped in, but it wasn’t sunny and hot enough for me to overcome my wimpiness about being cold.
We headed back up, ate a genuinely terrible dinner (They failed to fully cook the kebabs, and I think they put a bunch of tree leaves in our soup? They weren’t chewable.), watched the hotel owner facilitate an awkward New Years party in Mandarin (95% of the hotel’s guests were Chinese), and went to bed early.
The next day, we had a lazy morning, eating a ton of delicious food at the breakfast buffet and reading. Then we took a walk through a coffee plantation abutting our hotel, headed down to swim at the falls, and headed up to the road to get some decent food (though the breakfast at the hotel was good, the lunch and dinner menu are filled with things like French fries and Thai food that cost 4x as much as good food at a local restaurant). We had delicious bowls of soup, then headed back to the bungalow so Ted could do some work.