Vientiane - Bangkok ... 05/01 - 19/01
On Monday morning, Vanh rushes to the tourist office to extend our visas. It works out a bit cheaper than if we had paid the fee at the border but not much because she had to 'corrupt' the official. After one last spaghetti bolognaise, we say goodbye to Brice and Vanh. These two weeks have been our longest rest in a year and we really enjoyed it: no cycling, no guesthouse to look for, warm water, great cooking, conversations and TV in French... we are ready to set off for new adventures!
We do a 25 km to cross the Friendship bridge and carry on west. As with a magic trick, we find ourselves cycling on the left side of the road as soon as we have passed the border. While we have dinner, we think of the French movie we will watch. Amanda and Olivier gave us some movies and we can watch them on our laptop! We open the padlock of our door but the second key doesn't open the door. In Thailand and Lao, we lock the doors by pushing a small button at the back of the door. Tonight there was also a padlock so we closed both. It is 10pm, we start panicking, what if we have to sleep on the floor? A gorgeous girl approaches us. When she starts talking, we notice she is actually a he! She calls the owner who arrives 15 min later with a he knife. A knife? She slips the blade in the door and that's it ... guarantee of success, it was a Chinese knife with a very flexible blade!
The next morning, we try to exchange our kips for bahts. All the banks turn us down, which we find very vexing, especially as we are 2 km from the border. At the end, we change at the small stall on the market.
The road goes along the Mekong river and is much flatter than in the north of Thailand. The river is blocked in many places by sand banks and rocks. A few flat bottom boats go up and down the river, carrying goods. One of them has struck unlucky and is stranded on a sand bank. The men have set up a tent and wait for ... the next monsoon? We get as much success as in Lao, waving and clapping and people still shout Sabaidi even though we are in Thailand. Here the houses are not bamboo huts on stilts like in the mountains, they are in wood or concrete. In the afternoon, we meet two speeding cyclists who rush on us. 'Liegfiets!' they shout. In Dutch: 'Recumbents!'. They are both 50, cycling to Lao. Like many cyclists we have seen on the road, they cycle a few months every year. From what they tell us, we gather, they have been traveling for 20 or 30 years ... Then we tell them about our trip and it's their turn to feel amazed!
We stop in Sangkhom, a small village on the Mekong. If we hadn't just had a two weeks rest, we could well stop here for a few days. The guesthouse is a funky wooden house with a large terrace, comfy chairs, mattresses and cushions. We celebrate our first day of pedaling with a delicious pineapple milk shake while we watch the sunset on the Mekong.
We forgot how hot Thailand could be after cycling northern Lao: sweat dripping along our face, blazing sun... but in Lao, we didn't have to cycle early and now we don't feel like getting up at 6am only for a week. The next guesthouse, in Chiang Khan, a 100 km further is yet another temptation: wooden house with a magnificent view over the Mekong from our balcony and friendly owners. But we are a bit in a hurry. Our flight for Auckland leaves on the 19th January and we also need a few days in Bangkok to pack the bikes. So we say goodbye to two Thai stewards on holiday here and we leave the next morning.
The two days along the Mekong were great but after Ching Khan, we cycle inland and the atmosphere changes radically. No more charming villages but dull cities. The quiet road lined with trees is replaced by a busy road and all we want is arrive in Bangkok. Maybe we got used to the quiet roads of Lao, maybe people actually drive more dangerously in Isan but we don't feel very safe. Strangely enough, the slow vehicles tend to drive on the right lane and the crazy ones overtake them on the left lane, very close to us. And when there is only one lane, everyone uses the side of the road ... but that is our lane!
Isan is the poorest region of Thailand (even though a national poll found they were the happiest). Rice paddies are scarce but we see a lot of sugar cane fields. Trucks loaded as much as twice their capacity go back and forth between the fields and the processing plant in Chaiyaphum. The first truck we see is knocked over on the side of the road, sugar cane scattered on the ground. A group of men chat on the side, they are the drivers of the trucks of the convoy. No one seems really affected by the accident. We are! It doesn't take much imagination to picture our bike underneath the truck... From now on, we shudder every time one of these trucks overtakes us. We slow down so they pass by faster! On the same day, Sylvie witnesses a sad accident: a dog spots her from the other side of the road and enthusiastically runs towards her. Unfortunately, a truck arrives at full speed. The poor dog flies into the air before falling, lifeless, on the road. The accident happened in less than 30 seconds and reminds us just how vulnerable we are.
On the road, we meet again with Barry, the Dutch cyclist we saw in Vientiane and in Nong Khai. He is coming to escape winter in Europe and seems to be cycling the same route every year. Like other solitary cyclists we met, he is on his own because none of his friends want to cycle. We should put in touch all these lonely cyclists.
Up until now, we used to sleep in guesthouses and we would always get hot water (a non-negotiable commodity for Ben!). Here, there are only hotels which look quite plush. But it stops in the reception. The rooms with air-con are quite modern but too expensive and the ones with fan are run down and only have cold water. A rickety wooden house on stilts has decidedly more charm than these grey concrete cubes.
Pim and Susanna whom we met in Chiang Mai recommended we stop in Phimai, a mini Angkor Wat. The last leg is quite long, 122 km in one day. But the guesthouse is great: a relaxed, travelers atmosphere, a large bedroom with wooden floors, friendly owners and ... warm water for Ben ... Sylvie has to drag him out of the shower after 15 min! We could easily spend a week here but we leave the next day after visiting the temple. It reminds us of the great times we had in Angkor Wat with Bas and Leonie, also Dutch.
We ride the last 60 km in the afternoon, on a 4-lane highway. We arrive just in time to catch the bus for Bangkok. When we get there, it is dark and the bus station is 15 km away from Yannick and Stephanie's flat. Sylvie understood there was only a few km so, after 10 km of cycling in the dark between potholes, she just explodes! Ben tries to trick her by saying 'Only a few more km' but she is not fooled!
We spend the week in Bangkok cleaning and packing the bikes and the panniers. Not a single grain of foreign sand or dust is supposed to enter New Zealand! We also book a flight between Christchurch and Melbourne to prove we won't stay more than three months in the country, gather some info about the flights and visas for Kazakhstan and Khirghistan (back to the Bolshevik bureaucracy!). Ben finds a cycling shop which packs our bikes for a small fee and also buys our Bob trailer (we swap for some wonderful Arkel panniers).
Sylvie suffers from a tendonitis in both ankles so while Ben runs around the city, she 'works from home': cleaning the panniers and writing the blog.