Over the River and Through the Woods (The Christmas Post)

First there were four. Then two. Then four. Then three. Then five. Then seven. Then nine, for a few hours. Then seven. The once more five. Perhaps soon eight and then down to six.

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(Left to right: Chris’, mine, Mark’s, Claire’s, Minseong’s)

On Christmas day, though, the magic number was five. All of them just crazy enough to attempt Laos’ Route 18A, a 113km shortcut that would shave over 100km off of the ride down to the Cambodian border. It would also allow us to skip a 70km ascent up the Bolaven plateua. The downside? According to a Czech cyclist we found on the net who did this road a few years ago, ” … there are about 5 big and many smaller river crossings. It is quite a narrow path through the bush.”

First, we stocked up on provisions in Attapeu: 2kg of raw rice, 4kg of cooked sticky rice, 2kg of fresh noodles, 10,000 calories worth of dried ones, ten baguettes, twenty or so eggs, two coconuts, and an assortment of vegetables. Oh, and about seventy donuts between us. All of this in addition to the 3kg bag of roasted peanuts that we nabbed on our last day in Vietnam.

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I’ve run across several small dirt roads when trying to take shortcuts, and it’s not too uncommon for otherwise decent roads to break down into dirt for stretches, particularly near the top of steep mountain passes, but I do believe this was the first time I’ve knowingly taken a dirt road of significant length. Looks like it’s come time to put my tires, racks, and crotch padding to the test.

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The first 40km or so required no river crossings, but we did meet some seriously terrifying bridges. All I want for Christmas is not to plummet to my demise in a rocky, dried out riverbed after my wheels get pinched in between these wonky planks.

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Nothing scares this man.

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Good to be back in the land of Buddhism. Temples, monks, and free places to crash were consipicuously absent in Vietnam.

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Guess now’s a good time to introduce you to our new friends, Mark (left) and Claire. Both emissaries of her royal majesty, they set out from London about ten months ago and have covered 16,000km since then. That’s just about what I’ve covered, but in about 60% of the time. Good on ya!

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Not much going on out here – rocks and shrubs, dried up rice fields, open sky, and more than enough dust to choke us all.

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Making use of an empty hut on an razed-n-grazed rice paddy. None of the villagers passing by seemed to mind that we were up there whipping up lunch. In case you’re curious: fresh noodles from the market topped with hardboiled eggs, steamed greens, and sauteed tomatos and onions. For dessert, a handful of savory hush-puppy style donuts.

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Chris finally does what he’s been wanting to do for months: sling his hammock up and spend a few minutes kicking back.

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Thanks to our long shopping session in the morning, we got a late start and only managed about 45km a day. Just enough to put us over the 3000km mark since leaving Chiang Mai. Hurrah!

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First evening in Laos: camp by the bleachers at a soccer field behind the bus station near the Vietnam border.

Second: camp under the stars in a perfect little glade by a stream.

Third: Guesthouse.

I can’t believe it took us four nights to get to a temple to sleep at.

. The little monks brought out an English textbook and we had ourselves a little language exchange. “Tree,” “wood,” “fire,” “hot,” “happy.”

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Mark has an awesome little “point at it” book. It hardly weighs an ounce but has pictures inside of just about everything in the universe. Animals, foods, vehicles, houses, body parts, emotions, and more. Seems like a great help in those “Wow, these kids are adorable, but I don’t have any idea how to interact with them” sort of moments.

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As expected, we were woken up on Christmas morning at about 4AM by some truly noisy gonging. The little boys seem a little lackadaisical when it’s time to practice sutra recitation – they sprawl all over the temple floor, roll around, start and stop – but they sure know how to bang on stuff.

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On Christmas morning we set out on the tough part of the trail, not quite sure what to expect. We had had about six solid weeks of clouds, drizzle, and worse in Vietnam, but ever since coming into Laos everything had been bone dry. Even the numerous bridges we had crossed over the day before hadn’t had much under them.

At times, the road was like this: narrow, smooth, and perfectly silent, aside from the sound of dust being ground deep into our chains.

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At times, the road was like this: swallowed up by water of unknown provenance, turning muck a foot deep that would instantly cram itself into the slim space between tire and fender, packed so tightly that the wheels wouldn’t even spin properly.

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Thankfully, when such was the case, we were often able to make recourse to a path through the brush that passing mopeds had worn down. Failing that, we took to the paddies.

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At other times, there was nothing to do but give it a good old slog.

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A short interlude from the river fording to get our butts kicked (near-miss typo: “picked”) by some hills.

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Back to business as usual.

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The last of about five sizeable streams we crossed that day. All in all, it took us about eight hours to cover thirty-odd km.

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And yet…the hard part of the day had just begun! Time to entertain the fifty village children the swarmed our camping spot.

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Can you feel the love?

 

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What about now?

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After what felt like several hours of romping around – frisbee, shamefully skill-less ukulele performances, renditions of “head, shoulders, knees, and toes,” and that age-old favorite, “run around at random making strange sounds and faces,” we finally convinced the kids that it was bedtime.

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Our sleeping arrangements at what everyone else in the village called “the temple.” No monks, no buddhas, no bathrooms, but a welcome floor and roof all the same.

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Early the next morning as we were packing up, several of the kids returned, armed with a meter-long smoldering log. They quickly gathered a bunch of sticks and whipped up a fire for us. Then they made some weird spinning and contorting motions. It took us a while to understand what they wanted: one more round of frisbee! You rule, kiddos!

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Another hour or two’s worth of semi-rough riding brought us back to Route 13, which runs the entire length of the country from the Chinese border in the North to the Cambodian border in the south.

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What a wonderful world.

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