Baxter State Park Nordic Backcountry Tour (2018) Part 2 — The Storm

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!

Maker:S,Date:2017-9-5,Ver:6,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar02,E-Y

SE Asia Days 17-18: Bonus day in Luang Prabang and Travel to Thailand

Jan 11, 2017

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.

We did.

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.

Three days on the beach coming up!

 

SE Asia Days 15-16: Tad Kuang Si to Luang Prabang

Jan. 9, 2017

Ride map.

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.

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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.

Deep breath.

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.

SE Asia Days 11-12: Travel to Luang Prabang

Jan. 5th, 2017

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!

 

SE Asia Day 8: Tad E Tu to Thateng Nua

January 2nd, 2017

Ride map.

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!

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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.

 

SE Asia Days 6-7: Champasak to Tad E Tu

December 31st, 2016 and January 1st, 2017

Ride map.

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.

SE Asia Day 5: Exploring Vat Phou and Champasak

December 30, 2016

Ride map.

We got a slow start this morning because all we really had to do was head to Vat Phou (an ancient temple) and get massages. Hard life.

We ate breakfast at our hotel and headed to Vat Phou, which was about 12k away. The ride was nice, and a lot of tourists rented bikes to ride to the temple, so we had company.

Vat Phou is a Khmer temple and complex  (built by the same Khmer kings who built the temples at the Angkor Wat complex) on a mountain and a UNESCO world heritage site. The structures that remain on the site date back to the 11th-13th century, but the site has had a temple on it since the 5th century. It’s situated at the base of Lingaparavata mountain (now called Phou Khao), so named because the top is shaped like a linga, which is one of the forms the Hindu god Shiva takes. Thus, the mountain is believed to be sacred. There’s a constant stream of water coming down from the mountain, which is also believed to be sacred.



As you approach the temple, there are two large reflecting pools with cows grazing around them, then you get to two symmetrical buildings, the function of which is unknown.

  
Then starts the gorgeous climb up to the temple:

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The temple has not been restored, but there’s been a modern Buddha added, as well as a tin roof to protect it. Along with the remaining structures, there are cool carvings of elephants and a crocodile in boulders. The crocodile carving is believed to have been the site of an annual human sacrifice (the crocodile is the size and shape of a human lying upside down). The view of the surrounding area, which was the ancient city of Shrestapura, is pretty cool, especially when you think about how it must have looked as a highly populated city.


      
We headed back down to explore one of the lower structures, and angered a little green snake.

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We then headed back towards town and ate at a nice little restaurant at a lovely guesthouse that doesn’t seem to have any guests. It’s a little out of town, but if you come to Champasak, you should stay at the Khaimkhong guesthouse. The food was great, staff was kind, and the grounds were beautiful.



We headed back to town, walked around to look at the cool French colonial architecture and brightly colored houses, then got massages at the Champasak Spa, which were wonderful. Then we headed to dinner and then to a show at the Champasak Shadow Puppet Theater.


    
Shadow puppetry is an ancient art form that a small group of artists and musicians are reviving in Champasak. The puppets themselves had been kept for some significant number of years by local buddhist monks (our host, a Frenchman transplant to Champasak, spoke good English, but he left a few gaps), before they were given to this group around 8 years ago.  There was a group of musicians playing Lao folk music (called Lum Si Phan Don), as well as puppeteers and voice actors.  The music was great, and the show was fun to watch. Our host explained the story (an adaptation of the Ramayana) in English so we could follow along pretty well. The puppeteers popped out at the end to show us how the puppets look and how they operate them.


Such a cool experience! Off to the Bolaven Plateau next, land of coffee plantations and waterfalls.