The ride from Khe San to the border of Lao Bao was short, and mostly downhill so despite the drizzle it passed quickly. After one last ca phe sua da we headed to the border. We were waved through lots of official looking gates before we arrived at the small tin sheds that could give us our exit stamps, and the Lao immigration office where we applied for our visa. Because we recieved our Vietnamese visas in Battambang they were stapled in as a sheet with the stamps put on them, rather than a sticker like all the other ones we have. We thought we should probably hold onto them, but they were taken off us so we figured it must be ok. As we were rolling out the man who does the final check to make sure everything is in order told us that no, we need the Vietnam visa, and walked us back to the huts to find it. We timed it terribly as by the time we got back there all the staff who had processed the stamps had finished their shift, and after running about for 20 minutes our visas couldn’t be located. Some official people made some calls and we were allowed to leave, but hopefully the lack of Vietnamese visa doesn’t come back to bite us later.
We managed to get some kip from the ATM at the border, although the amounts allowed are still frustratingly low (we have to pay a charge from both our bank and the Lao bank everytime we withdraw). Only a few kilometers from the border it started bucketing down so we sheltered outside a hairdressers and ate the last of our Vietnamese bahn mi. Although it dried up when we finished, it didn’t take long to start raining again and we spent out first day riding in Lao drenched and unable to see any of the scenery thanks to the low clouds. We stopped at Xepon, a one street town with a few guesthouses, a really big hotel and a night market. We took an air conditioned room at the hotel to try and dry our stuff out, although the unit ended up dripping on the floor beside the bed all night. The bikes haven’t been running that smoothly and since we arrived well before darkness we gave them a warm shower and some TLC in the courtyard. We were wondering why such a tiny town had such a big hotel – it turns out 16km from Xepon is a huge copper mine, and any contractors and consultants stay in the hotel in town.
Luckily the morning was clear and we rolled off on a planned very short day. We stopped just once for snacks in a small village, although the selection is not so great here and we had stale durian flavoured chocolate coated biscuits and chips with a strawberry dipping sauce. The riding was easy and the roads quiet enough that we could ride two abreast and chat. We stopped for lunch in Phin at a popular place just across from the bus station. For the third time we had rice topped with a variety of things, including a deep fried cross section of a fish. We’ve noticed food is a bit more expensive here than it was in Vietnam, an observation made by other cycle tourists too. We think part of the reason might be that instead of getting one or two toppings on our giant plates of rice, we get everything they have. Also Lao doesn’t produce as much of its own food as Vietnam and Thailand do, so most processed food is imported, and even the markets look less plentiful than we saw in neighbouring countries.
We arrived in Xethamouak just after lunch, having ridden only 47km, but still working on the mindset of taking it easy after our experiences in Vietnam. Our accommodation was clean, and had a hot shower and air con and after a trip to the market for fruit and snacks we were happy resting away the afternoon. While at the market a rain storm came in and flooded the place in a few minutes. One woman was hearding up her cardboard boxes that were floating away. It rained again on our way back to the guest house but we were beckoned into a family’s house and waited there and managed to communicate what we were doing and why we were staying in their town.
It rained overnight, but we woke up to a sunny morning and after a breakfast of fat Lao noodles in a thick soup we headed out of town. Almost immediately the road turned to a muddy, pothole riddled mess. Luckily this only lasted a few kilometers or we would have struggled to ride the 80km we were planning to Dong Hen. Again the road was quiet, and we were so caught in conversation that a few hours passed, and we managed to climb a few hundred meters on rolling hills without really realising it. We stopped for a coffee at a friendly looking house in a small village. It’s a bit harder to spot coffee places here, usually we see the fridge with other drinks first then look for a big jug of brown liquid. They mix this with evaporated milk and condensed milk and pour it over ice. Most times it tastes really smoky, not burnt, but like it’s been cooked over a fire. Instead of two glasses we were served one big bag of coffee.
As we were finishing our coffees a tourist pulled up on a motorbike. We had passed him heading in the other direction, and he’d spotted our bikes and stopped for a chat. Turns our he had taken a wrong turn that morning and was on the wrong highway, his bike was broken and he was driving around trying to find an ATM that would accept foreign cards so he could get the cash to get it fixed. He was having a pretty bad day! He hadn’t spoken english for 4 days so we stayed and chatted a while about our adventures and hopefully brightened his day up a bit. Even though we sometimes complain that it gets a bit lonely, even as two, and that we end up repeating the same conversations, at least we can speak to each other.
After an hour and a half we set off again, and after another 10km found a spot for lunch. Three lovely ladies were running a stall selling papaya salad (we know it as som tam from Thailand, but it’s not the right name in Lao and they laughed at us). The woman were about our age and through a combination of hand waving, our basic Lao/Thai, their basic english and Bryony’s translation book we were able to have a conversation, interspersed with plenty of giggling. It seemed like every time we stopped on this day, friendly, interesting people would find us so a relatively short ride took us most of the day. When we finally reached Dong Hen the one guesthouse in town was pretty awful – no windows, very hard bed and a bucket shower – so we decided to ride on as maps.me showed one a little way out of town. About 1km out of town we found a place, it wasn’t much better but had a shower. We rode back into Dong Hen for dinner at a nice wee restaurant with a translated menu.
When we got back to our guesthouse we discovered that the light no longer worked, so had to shift all our stuff into the next room. This, and the location in the middle of miles of rice paddies, meant that our room was teeming with a variety of insects. Luckily we’ve been carrying a mosquito net since Malaysia so strung that up. Outside our room were some of the biggest beetles, grasshoppers and moths we’ve ever seen. The bed felt 100 years old, with very prominant springs but we slept soundly on our self inflating mattresses.
Rather than head back into town in the morning we had a quick breakfast of dragonfruit while watching an army of ants dismantle one of the giant grasshoppers and headed off down the road to see what we could find. We passed a couple of guesthouses in the first 10km that looked lots nicer than ours and stopped outside the second one for breakfast. Due to a bit of translation drama we ended up with not just two omelets, but also two baskets of sticky rice (which are probably family sized). Stuffed, and a little lethargic, we got back on our bikes and headed towards Savannakhet. After a very slow hour of riding we spotted a coffee stall and stopped, hoping coffee would pick us up. We ordered two coffees, which turned out to be in bags and about a litre of sweet, milky liquid. This had the opposite effect to what we were hoping and we spent the next few hours of riding trying to hold it all down. Lunchtime came and went and neither of us felt like eating anything so we pushed on all the way to Savannakhet.
We rode into Savannakhet on a huge but nearly desserted road and did a bit of exploring trying to find a guesthouse. We ended up at Pilgrims kitchen and inn, definitely a splurge for us, but the appeal of having nice linen, a soft bed, good wifi and a lounge to hang out in was too strong. After checking in we discovered that it was a Thursday, and too late to drop our visas in to the Thai embassy. This meant that if we dropped them in on Friday we wouldn’t be able to get them back until Monday afternoon, a pretty long stay in a town we didn’t know too much about. But the appeal of an extended break in one place was pretty strong so we booked in for 5 nights. Even Taek, the manager was surprised – people don’t usually visit Savannakhet for so long.
The guesthouse made the perfect base. We had a fridge so stocked up on fruit each night from the same woman at an evening market. She was Vietnamese and spoke really good english and beamed at Bryony when she kept coming back. Each morning we would make fruit salad with cereal and yoghurt in the upstairs lounge then go downstairs and have a coffee. They roast their own beans and make a good espresso coffee which was brilliant. In the evening we would wander down to the night market for dinner – one night we had a selection of steamed dishes, including chicken feet. We also found stir frys, burgers, coconut icecream and waffles. The staff at Pilgrims were really friendly to us, and we even went to the night market with Taek one night for dinner. We really enjoyed his company, and he seems to know everyone in town through football, his business and all the kids that play on the street. A few of his friends would play guitar and sing in the restaurant some evenings, so we would sit downstairs playing cards to listen.
We really enjoyed Savannakhet. It’s true that there aren’t that many tourist activities, and you could probably tick them all off in a couple of days, but we liked taking our time to explore as well as the general laid back, sleepy feel of the city. We visited the dinosaur museum and talked to the man that runs it. It was fun to talk with a scientist again, and even though palaentology is pretty different from what we do, we could appreciate his passion. And also got to hold a t-rex fossil. We managed to swap some books in a cafe, walked along the mekong and visited some temples as we walked past. The provincial museum was one of the best we’ve visited and we learnt lots about the Savannakhet region and its history. One day we took a bike ride out to the Thatinghang temple, then followed a bumpy, dusty track to Bungva lake. We stopped here for a beer on one of the lake huts and enjoyed watching the uni students in the next hut drinking crates and playing cards. And of course we spent plenty of time at the guest house playing cards, reading and catching up on communication. Monday almost came around too soon, and with no dramas or queues we got our visas and packed up to leave in the morning. Savannakhet is apparently a pretty popular spot for a Thai visa run so there are often queues, but because we applied over the weekend we had the place to ourselves.
We’ve found the transition into Lao a lot easier than some of the earlier countries we visited. The language is very similar to Thai with lots of overlapping words and the same kind of sounds, so learning to greet people, order food and count hasn’t been too challenging. Wifi is nowhere near as accessible as the other countries we’ve visited, but we don’t seem to need it as much. Google maps is terrible for showing places to stay, but the free offline maps we also have (maps.me) is fantastic and so far every place it has exists and we haven’t spotted too many extras. It takes a lot of pressure off knowing there is going to be somewhere to sleep ahead of us, especially as we don’t pass accomodation every 5km like in Thailand. It’s rained a lot since we’ve been here, and not just the short, heavy rain we were told comes along with the rainy season, but hours and hours of heavy rain. We learnt from a customer at Pilgrims that this is because its the end of the rainy season. For the first few months its short heavy rain, but at this time of a year its just heavy and constant. We are getting pretty good at sucking it up and riding, but it does mean we probably won’t take any roads besides the main highways as off this the roads are all dirt and the rain makes them muddy, washed out and potholed.
What new things have we seen on the road? Lots of goats. They started appearing at the end of Vietnam, but have multiplied in Lao. From a distance the herds look like gangs of dogs, but luckily we haven’t encountered any of those. There are more dogs on the road in Lao (less of a delicacy here apparently), but they are mostly scardy cats and only bark once we are safely past, just to let us know how tough they are. We still see plenty of water buffalo among the rice paddies, but for some reason about 30% of them are albino. Still big and wide, just pink instead of black. Traffic has been pretty minimal, mainly motorbikes and a few utes, except for the big convoys of 5-10 big trucks carrying large tanks. We haven’t worked out what they are carrying although James saw one labelled with sulfuric acid. They passed us 2 or 3 times a day so didn’t really disrupt the ride.
With our Thai visas in hand, but time ticking on our Lao visas we waved goodbye to the staff at Pilgrims and set out in the pouring rain towards Thakhek.