We woke to rain in Savannakhet, and it didn’t slow down as we took our time over breakfast, a coffee and a chat with an engineer who consulted in the mine at Xepon. His wife is Laoatian, so he’s spent lots of time here. He was the one that let us know that later in the rainy season it pours all day, rather than just for short stints. So we put on our rain coats and rolled out into the rain. We rode without stopping back to Seno. It’s funny how far our minds can wander down different tracks when we ride along without talking for a while. When we stopped for a pee break after an hour Bryony’s head was full of day dreams about jobs in Holland, while James was working out the best way to make a grass track on the farm in Waiwera and hold grass track racing.
At Seno we turned north and directly into one of the strongest head winds we’ve faced on this trip. Coupled with the rain, the conditions were pretty unpleasant. We stopped for a syrup drink, but Bryony’s communication was a bit off today – we got cola and red flavor, not apple and blueberry. The rain looked to be easing a little, but started pouring again as we rolled out, shivering a bit from the stop. It’s a bit hard to describe the scenery as our sun glasses were covered in rain, significantly reducing visibility (but not as bad as no glasses, which felt like pins stabbing your eyeballs). When Bryony punctured 10km after Xeno we decided to give up on making it to Thakhek that day. Luckily we were right next to a bus shelter so could hide from the rain, if not the wind while changing the tube. The shelter was over a big pond, and didn’t feel particularly safe with the weight of our bikes.
We found a guesthouse after 10km, but it was pretty isolated, and according to the maps there was a bit of a town 3km ahead, so we decided to check that out and eat and then ride back if we couldn’t find anything else. We found a bit of a cyclists haven that we haven’t seen since Thailand – a big petrol station with a Cafe Amazon with free wifi, as well as a restaurant, a mini mart and sparkling clean toilets. Giving up on the rest of the days cycling we sat here for about 3 hours watching the rain. It actually got pretty cold though – Bryony was shivering with blue lips in her jacket and wooly hat, cradling a hot cup of coffee. Not an image normally associated with south east asia. The rain finally slowed down at about 3, and we decided to brave another 10km forward to a town with a choice of 3 guesthouses, as the one we’d passed didn’t look great. We found a pretty clean place with a restaurant and took an air conditioned room, not to cool down, but to dry out all our stuff! Bryony’s front panniers aren’t waterproof although all the contents are in dry bags. Most of the time the panniers do enough, but on days like this they fill up with water. The power went out intermittently after dinner, so we had an early night.
It wasn’t raining in the morning, but the dirt ground sure was wet. We had breakfast in the guesthouse (or gusthouse as the sign said) restaurant and just as Bryony warned James to be careful of the wet wooden deck he slipped cartoon-style onto his ass. As we finished up our meal it started drizzling and was pretty cold, so we got the rain coats out again. It stopped about mid morning so we stopped for coffee. The lady seemed a little flustered, although we pointed at the coffee and the ice and the milk and used our best lao pronunciation of coffee. She ran out the back yelling ” mi cafe farang” with some urgency, and another woman came and after some discussion in Lao made us coffee. We stopped for lunch about 10km from Thakhek at a popular noodle soup spot and watched the kids next door playing in the mud before carrying on into town. We found a reasonable hotel down near the river and had a second lunch of pizza from a cafe on the corner. Both of us are struggling a bit with our appetite – we are never really full. Bryony gets a bit sick of eating sometimes, not James though.
It was a pretty short day, so we spent the afternoon wandering down to a market to stock up on fruit for breakfast then enjoyed a beer at a restaurant over the mekong watching the sunset over Thailand. Like Savannakhet there was a small market not far from our hotel at night where we could have our pick of dinner things and fruit juices.
After getting over the shock of the hotel staff moving our bikes to another room overnight (the manager was apathetic to our concern, and to pretty much everything, he just wandered around with his headphones in and never smiled) we headed out of town towards the limestone cliffs on highway. We picked up some skewered chicken, sticky rice and dragonfruit and had a picnic with the ants just outside of town. The lady who sold us the chicken was awesome. When we told her we had ridden from Singapore to get there she gave us a bunch of breads to go with our chicken. There are heaps of caves in this area, and the road is part of a popular motorbiking route so there were plenty of sign posts. We headed towards a climbers camp to have a peek and check out a cave near there. Unfortunately we are 3 weeks early for any climbing as the whole place is still flooded, and the cave we wanted to visit was inaccessible due to a large lake where the road should have been. The area was great to bike through, with huge cliffs just meters from the road. We knew the houses were on stilts for a reason, but we hadn’t seen so many houses with boats parked beneath rather than motorbikes.
We decided to skip the main tourist caves as they were more than 9km off the main road, which doesn’t sound like much, but with the state of the side roads it would have taken more than an hour each way. So we headed to the Xang caves closer to Thakhek. The main route was flooded, but we found a small bridge through the temple. There was no one else about, and as we biked past a man scrambled to get his camo jacket and run ahead of us to open the gate. The cave was a slippery climb up slimy stone stairs to a nice view out over the rice paddies and lots of bats (we smelt them before we saw them). It didn’t take long to explore and we hit the very muddy, potholed road home. We found a hose beside the hotel to try and get the worst of the red dust which had our frames caked.
The internet at the hotel was fantastic so Bryony managed to get a long chat in with her Dad. We spend the rest of the evening eating, first at a Thai restaurant, then at the night market. One thing we’ve tripped up on a couple of times here is when people tell us the price for something in english, and it’s in the teens, they often get it wrong – so they say the 13,000 kip salad is 30,000. When you think about it english counting is pretty confusing. Lao makes much more sense – 13 is ten three (sip sam) and 30 (sam sip) is three ten. We should just confirm with Lao numbers, because we’ve got them pretty figured out. Instead James had to charge back to the guesthouse and try and find the extra money Bryony had hidden only to pay with a note that was far too big so the guy had to run around finding change.
We only saw a couple of other tourists in Thakhek, but the town is in a really nice spot, so I imagine there are more in the high season. There are plenty of bars and restaurants along the Mekong, and the town has a really nice feel to it. If we hadn’t just had 5 days off in Savannakhet we might have spent a bit longer exploring more caves and the national park. As it was we were pretty keen to get on our bikes and moving towards Vientiane, just hopefully with a bit less rain.