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!

 

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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 10: Tad Lo to Pakse

Jan. 4, 2017.

Ride map.

 Oof. That’s about what I have to say about today.

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.

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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.)

SE Asia Days 0-1: Travel day + staving off jet lag

Day 0: Travel day
Ted checked in for our flight online and we had a series of serendipitous events (skipping the line because Ted checked in early; K-9 team so we didn’t have to use the scanner, take off shoes, or take out laptops at security; a security line opening up right as we got in line) which we needed because a bunch of frustrating things also happened (second flight had a last-minute airline switch which meant we couldn’t check in for it and they had trouble checking our bags all the way through, Ted said the word “bicycle” and the airline employee checking us in had a coniption about how our bags were oversized and needed a box even though they were well under the size and weight restrictions, our bike locks in our carry on luggage were considered possible weapons by the TSA so Ted had to go back to the counter to check them and come back through security). But we made it with time to spare.

Our flight (on a cool double-decker plane) took us through Seoul, SK before heading to Siem Reap. The flight was 14 hours long and uneventful. Neither of us slept, which we both decided was a good thing for jet lag reasons, but which meant we were up for a good 30 hours straight. Ted worked for most of the flight while I read a book and watched several movies. The food was pretty good – they had bibimbap!
  
At the Incheon airport in South Korea there was some confusion at the transfer security station about why we didn’t have boarding passes yet, but they eventually let us through. Then it inexplicably took ~20 minutes to print our boarding passes at the gate, and we never really relaxed until we had them in hand. But we eventually got those too, and boarded a 5-hour flight to Cambodia. We both slept a bit on this flight, although every time Ted fell asleep, a flight attendant came by to wake him up for something. 

Which brings us to the Siem Reap airport, where we anxiously waited for our three checked bags (after the airline employee struggled to check them through, we were skeptical they’d be there). They all arrived, and our Bromptons did not suffer any damage! So it seems like all you have to do is put your Brompton in an IKEA Dimpa bag with some light foam around the sensitive parts, have the airline put a “Fragile” tag on it, and they can travel halfway across the world without a scratch!

Our hotel sent a tuk tuk to pick us up, which was a lovely way to get into town. We arrived Christmas night and apparently some Cambodians party pretty hard on Christmas, so there was lots of merrymaking to observe. Ted instantly got nostalgic for Zambia due to the smell of the town, which I pointed out to him was the smell of burning plastic. We were exhausted, so we basically collapsed into bed at the beautiful Bopha Pollen guesthouse (which I would highly recommend if you can get a good rate like we did from agoda.com). 

  
  

Day 1: Angkor National Museum and Wat Thmei

We decided to take it easy today to recuperate from traveling (neither of us have ever traveled this far and we were both a little nervous about jet lag). We woke up and got free breakfast from our amazing hotel, then set out for a walk to the Angkor National Museum. There are a few good museums in Siem Reap (land mine museum, war museum, this Angkor museum), and we decided to come to this one to give ourselves some context for our trip to Angkor Wat tomorrow. The museum was lovely and we learned some helpful things about the great Khmer kings, the history of the Angkor temples, and the deities that were the focus of the Angkor carvings. 

We then ventured to the Peace Café, an undeniably western vegetarian restaurant / community yoga space that came highly recommended by a coworker. This place had a beautiful setting with lots of shade trees and comfy chairs. We got some delicious curry dishes, a smoothie, and coffee, all of which were super. 

  

Then we headed to Wat Thmei, which is a temple and memorial for the approximately 25 percent of the Cambodian population that was killed during the Khmer Rouge regime in the 70s. The signs said that between 8,000 and 10,000 people were killed at this very site. 

  
Pol Pot never had to face justice for his crimes. Just like America never had to face justice for the millions of civilians we killed in this region of the world (not to mention the fact that we likely gave covert support to the mass-murdering KR regime).

Moving on….
We then headed back to the hotel and took a dip in the pool because it was a hot day (and because pool), then headed out to the night market and dinner. The night market was a little too much for us, so we left pretty quickly, and we were so tired that we just stumbled into some random place for dinner and it was just okay. We went to bed pretty early because we needed to be ready for sunrise at Angkor Wat the next day!

  
  
BTW, Siem Reap is not very walker friendly. No sidewalks in most of the town and everyone drives a motorbike or rides in a tuk tuk so you’re sort of an outcast if you walk. The locals don’t even walk. Therefore, this smells like exhaust and burning plastic. 

Tips and Tricks: Getting your Brompton onto a plane and into an overhead compartment

We did a ton of research on which folding bikes to purchase and ultimately landed on Bromptons for one reason: they fit in an overhead compartment (unless you’re on a tiny plane; more on that later). Yes, Bromptons are more expensive than Bike Fridays, Dahons, etc., but with bike luggage fees running up to $150 (one way), we will definitely save money after just a couple trips.

Airlines known for their focus on customer service are more likely to be okay with you putting your bike in an overhead compartment; however, you might have to be a little crafty because (1) Bromptons do not technically fit within most airlines’ allowable dimensions and (2) the whole “folding bike on a plane” thing is new and it just seems wrong. We’ve had success with Jet Blue and have heard positive stories from people flying Southwest.

Here’s what we did to get our bikes on the plane to San Jose, California with very little resistance from airport employees.

Before arriving to the airport:

Check the size of the overhead compartment when you book your flight. Your Brompton might not fit in a given airplane’s overhead compartments. It’s your job to figure out if it will. When you book a flight, the airline will tell you what type of plane you’ll be flying on. Do a quick search for the dimensions of the overhead compartment of that plane. Make note of these dimensions–as well as the dimensions of your Brompton–to share with the gate employees if they tell you your bike won’t fit. People can’t argue with math. Well, they can, but they’ll lose. It also helps to mention that you’ve carried your bike onto this exact model of plane before, so you know it will fit. We actually had to do this on a flight and the employee just shrugged and waved us on.

Also, some planes have large overhead compartments on one side and small ones on the other. This is a good piece of information to have if the gate employees tell you your bike won’t fit. It goes without saying, but if this is the case, try to board early even if you have to pay a little extra to do so.

Purchase the Dimpa bag from Ikea to disguise your bike, if necessary. Like I said, even though Bromptons are around the same size as a carry-on suitcase, airport employees still tend to be a little wary of people carrying bikes. We brought Ikea’s lightweight, durable, $4 Dimpa bags on our trip to California in case we suddenly got nervous or noticed some suspicious eyes watching our bikes. These came in handy when we needed to disguise our bikes on the Amtrak train in San Luis Obispo (where bikes are explicitly not allowed), and they also made carrying the bikes through the airport super easy. Yes, they’re slightly transparent, but somehow they still worked for us.

At the airport:

Remove the seat and seatpost and put a tennis ball on the seatpost opening. This step is crucial! Your bike will not fit in the overhead compartment with a bike seat. This requires an allen wrench, so make sure you keep your bike tool with you on the plane or remove your seat before checking your tool.

Don’t ever unfold your bike. Fold your bike the second you get to the airport and never unfold it again. People are more willing to turn a blind eye if they don’t ever see that your steel contraption actually does unfold to a full-size bike. It’s one thing to think this is possible, but another to see it happen. Like I said, bringing a bike through an airport is weird and airport employees’ (particularly TSA employees’) jobs revolve around noticing things that are weird and preventing them from happening. Try to fly under the radar.

Be cool. If you act like you know what you’re doing, people will be less likely to question you. We got the most questions about our bikes at the TSA checkpoint, but we just calmly answered people’s questions, smiled, and pretended it was just an everyday thing. All of the TSA employees we spoke to quickly turned from suspicious to curious, and we ended up laughing and cracking jokes with them.

Put the bike in rack/rolling wheels to the front, handlebars up. Once you get on the plane, you want to get your bike in the overhead bin as quickly as possible so as to not raise suspicion and also just to say, “I told you so.” The only way to do this is top first, handlebars up. Memorize this. Do not try it another way. You will waste time, it will not fit, and a flight attendant will approach you to say, “Ma’am, you’ll have to gate check your luggage” faster than you can say, “Holy mother of god, why did I listen to that idiot blogger.” A Brompton without a rack fits very easily, but a Brompton with a rack will still fit as long as you put it in top first, handlebars up.

At this point, you can rest easy! Your bike is on the plane and you didn’t even have to pay $150 to get it there. Congratulations! Now you can reassemble your bike, which should only involve putting the seatpost back in.

Installing Ergon GP2 handle grips, the most comfortable handle grips we’ve ever used!

A quick note: the most important part of this process is making it past security. Once you’ve done that, the worst that can happen is that you’ll have to gate check your bike (definitely not ideal, but still free). This is where your Dimpa bag will come in handy. If you have the time and ability, try to pad your bike in its Dimpa bag with extra clothes so that the luggage handlers don’t do too much damage. Although, we’ve heard stories of bikes without any protection at all going through the checked luggage process and coming away without any damage. This is not something I’m eager to try, but it’s a testament to the quality and durability of Bromptons. So if you’re planning to travel with your folding bike, spend a little extra money and get a Brompton. It will pay for itself after a few plane trips!

Carmel to SLO Day 1 – Carmel to Kirk Creek Campground

Day 1 – 56.8 miles – 6,378 ft. elevation gain

We started this tour after spending a few days with friends from Colorado in Carmel. We stayed up later than we wanted last night, getting caught up in an intense game of spades and not going to sleep until close to 2 am. We woke up bleary eyed at 6:30 in the morning, heated up leftovers from dinner two nights ago and did the final bag pack.  Took everything outside, unfolded the bikes, and pushed the bikes up the hill outside of the house. Maybe not an auspicious way to start the tour, but it was a steep freaking hill.  I’m happy to say that this was the first/last/only hill we weren’t able to ride.

The first hill is the steepest, baby I know...

The first hill is the steepest, baby I know…

Starting off! (at the top of that hill)

We started at 7:30 in a chilly misty rain. There were some rather steep hills coming out of Carmel and Dani had some early doubts about the wisdom of taking on the hills of Big Sur on our Bromptons. For the first few miles out of Carmel, highway 1 was a busy multiple-lane highway. It subsequently narrowed to two lanes, but it didn’t get much less busy.

The ride was up and down, but it felt like more up than down. We passed Point Lobos and Carmel highlands, which had several adorable houses. The rain cleared up after the first hour or so and we had sunshine for pretty much the rest of the day.

About 17 miles in, we came to the famous Bixby bridge, took some pictures, and met another bike tourist named Ricky. He was heading down the coast to San Diego and then over to Florida… And then maybe to the islands.   He was both very smart and articulate and maybe a little nuts.

Bixby Bridge

Bixby Bridge

After the bridge, the sun really stated to shine, and after climbing a not-too-bad hill, we had four or five miles through some beautiful fields with mountains on the east and trees in the west. Then we started to enter the forest at the beginning of Big Sur. We rode through small groves of redwood and they were beautiful.  There were several adorable lodges and restaurants right along the river.

We knew the biggest hill of the day was coming up, so we found lots of excuses to stop.  But even our creativity for excuses eventually ran out, so we started climbing. And we climbed and climbed and climbed. Probably around 900 feet of elevation gain.  It was tough, but our Bromptons’ easiest gear is a low enough that we were able to make it without too much difficulty. This was my first experience with how having a limited number of gears can actually be beneficial. Where I would normally be trying to find the exact right gear that wasn’t too hard but that would still make me work, I was forced to use the easiest gear and accept the fact that I couldn’t push myself up the hill. It turned out to be a pleasant way to climb.

About three-quarters of the way up the hill, I heard Dani screaming less-than-friendly words at someone. It turns out that a motorcycle had cut her off by parking perpendicular to her in the shoulder, forcing her into the lane… in front of a RV.

After we reached the summit, we went to Napenthe: a fancy restaurant that charges tons of money for terrible food.  Even with the awful food, people keep coming because they want to sit on the deck and see the unbelievable view. We had an $11 steamed artichoke, and two “ambrosia” burgers that came with a “famous secret sauce” that was actually thousand island dressing. The burgers were $18 each. The service was also terrible, and I felt compelled to write a note on the receipt explaining all of the reasons for the poor tip.

A great view!!!

A great view!!

...with terrible food.

…with terrible food.

After Napenthe, we went to the cafe below it, drank some coffee and charged our phones.

Coffee and “golf.”

We had a big initial downhill, but then lots of up and down.  After another 10 miles we came to McWay Falls, a thin waterfall that shoots out of a bluff onto the beach and down to this GORGEOUS blue green cove. One of the most beautiful things I’ve seen.  On our way out, I made the mistake of standing on a sidewalk that a man in a minivan was trying to use to make an illegal u-turn. I stood, baffled, as I absorbed an incredible volume of invectives cast my way.


For the rest of the day, the shoulders were narrow to nonexistent and the hills were constant, but Big Sur might be the most stunningly beautiful area I’ve ever seen. View after view. Turquoise water washing up on white sand beaches backed by majestic bluffs. Whales cresting and blowing in the distance. Amazing beauty.




After the area right around Napenthe, we didn’t pass another building for 25 miles, when we arrived at the one-shop “town” of Lucia. We were excited to eat, but the restaurant was closed for the break between lunch and dinner (and the owner refused to even fill up my water bottle), so we ended up paying $6.50 for a frozen burrito and $4 for a coconut water. I guess when you’re the only store for 50 miles, you can get away with a little price gouging. But I encourage anyone in the area to steer clear. While we were busy being denied sustenance, a lady saw our Bromptons and remarked to Dani she had hers in her truck, and that our bikes were really better suited to cruising rather than climbing the hills of Big Sur.  It’s always fun to have people tell you that what you’re doing is impossible.

Three miles after Lucia, we arrived at Kirk Creek Campground. We set up camp in an amazing hiker biker site right next to the ocean, and met a few other bike tourists (a solo and a father-daughter team). We snacked, played cards, and watched the sun set over the Pacific before hunkering down in our tent (at 8:45) to rest up for the next day. We also saw some whales having a feeding frenzy just a hundred or so feet off the shore. There were lots of blows, a few breaches, and a couple of tail flukes.  I had never seen a whale before, so that was amazing. The only downside to the camp is that there was no water, so we spent a few hours trying to track down the elusive campground host so we could pay him $5 for a gallon of water.

Campground by the sea.

The first sunset of the trip.

Map and stats.