Wednesday, November 6, 2002

Vang Vieng, continued

Friends: Laurie and I finally put our tent and sleeping bags to use two nights ago. I'm almost embarrassed to admit we didn't camp once in Thailand, making it the first country of the many I have biked that I didn't camp. We will have a chance to rectify that when we return to Thailand in two months, completing our circuit of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.

We left Luang Prabang just after noon Monday with the marginal hope of reaching a town with accommodations that night. Our map indicated the town was eighty kilometers away, though our guide book gave a distance of 135 kilometers. Its not the first time our two Lonely Planet publications have been in conflict. It was through mountainous terrain, so even fifty miles in less than six hours of light was no certainty. We could have left earlier to make sure we'd reach it before dark, but we had lots and lots of climbing over the next 150 miles and preferred to start off with a half day and not demand too much of our legs on our first day in the mountains.

There was even more climbing than we anticipated--over 11,000 feet in 110 miles. We managed thirty-six miles and 3,800 feet of it before we ran out of daylight that first day. We were on a steep climb with a cliff wall to our left and a sheer drop to our right, offering minimal camping possibilities. Years of experience had me confident that something would turn up, even as night closed in. Laurie trusted me, or at least kept her worries to herself. And then, with less than ten minutes before pitch dark, we came upon a slight bulge in the road with overgrown grass and an abandoned wooden stand for selling produce. We stopped to see if there was space and security for camping. Beyond the stand was a path down the cliff-side. It was steep and showed no sign of recent use. By removing the wooden slats from the backside of the stand there was just enough space for our tent. Bushes to one side shielded the tent entirely from the site of traffic coming up the road. Only the most observant driver on the descent might catch a glimpse of us. It was highly unlikely though, as the driver would have to keep his eyes on the road coming into the corner.

There had been little traffic during the day. We knew there would be virtually none after dark, so we set up camp with only minimal concern of discovery. The stars were beginning to shine brightly by the time we had erected the tent and we'd stowed our gear. It had been cool enough that we hardly worked up a sweat on the climb. We were both down to about a bottle-and-a-half of water. We were lucky to have supplemented our supply an hour earlier at the only road side stand in the only small village we had passed through since leaving Luang Pragang. The person who sold us the water put his hands together and held them against his ear and tilted his head to the side for the universal sign of sleep. He then pointed up the road and shook his head, indicating there was no place to sleep up the road. We appreciated his concern, but we knew better. If I hadn't experienced so many miracle campsites just as it was getting dark over the years in country after country, from densely populated India to mountainous Colombia, I might have regarded our campsite as a miracle. Maybe it was, but then I have experienced countless miracles over the years. I am a believer, knowing a campsite always awaits me.

We had a lovely dinner of peanut butter and bananas on some wheat crackers we had bought a week ago in Thailand for just such an occasion. We had enough for breakfast as well. We read for awhile by candlelight and were asleep by 8:30. We weren't woken until shortly after six when we heard footsteps pass by our tent and head down the trail. I called out "Sabadi," but received no response. When we peeked out the tent, we discovered we were engulfed by mist. We were at high enough altitude for it to be a cloud. We were on our bikes by seven. After half an hour we began encountering workers, mostly women, along the road carrying baskets, heading to their fields, maybe down the very path we had slept beside. For twenty minutes there was a sporadic stream of people coming down the road, including a guy with a rifle. Unlike the day before, they paid us no attention, even though we passed within an arm's length of them. Several women and children covered their faces with their shawls when they saw us. Laurie asked, "Does my hair look that bad?"

They expressed no hostility, just extreme stoicism, though I did notice a few turning to look at us in my rear view mirror. This was definitely no place for Chicago's Cycling Sisters to do one of their topless rides. But this response was an aberration, perhaps the usual early morning malaise that afflicts most commuters on their way to jobs they detest. The rest of the day we received the same enthusiastic greeting we had experienced everywhere else in Laos, with one lone exception. A couple of hours later as we were climbing, a fellow touring cyclist flew past us from the opposite direction with a mere "hello," maintaining his momentum rather than stopping for an exchange of information. Touring cyclists are so rare, he should have been thrilled for the opportunity to get a report from us of what was ahead and what our experience had been, as we would have liked to have heard from him. We would have warned him about the speed-boats and recommended our hotel. We would have liked to have known how much more climbing awaited us, and where he had spent the night. This wasn't New Zealand, where there are so many touring cyclists that few even bother to acknowledge another on a bicycle. He was just the second we had seen in the 800 miles we had biked the past three weeks.

We were prepared to camp again that night, though we were hoping we wouldn't have to. We were caked in several layers of sweat from the strain of all the climbing we had done in the seventy miles we had covered and would very much have liked to end our day with a shower. We knew of a guest house in the town of Kasi, our hoped for destination. Despite the strain, we were utterly enthralled by the stunningly spectacular mountain scenery. It was unlike any we had seen, a never-never land of limestone mountains with jutting promontories and dramatic formations. There was a mini-Matterhorn and a row of jagged peaks that might have been escapees from the Tetons. Just as it looked as it we might be camping in their midst we came upon an unexpected small village with a recently built hotel, our nicest accommodations of the entire trip other than Esther's in Chang Mai. It was one of the rare places that offered not only hot water, but towels and toilet paper and soap. We didn't object at all to paying 30,000 kip for it, less than three dollars.

The people here are so unaccustomed to communicating with foreigners, it is difficult at times to determine the cost of things. Sometimes people hold up a number of fingers, each indicating 1,000 kip. Sometimes they pull out the number of bills from their own stash to indicate what something costs. Those with calculators simply punch the number in and show us. Some write it on a piece of paper. We manage to eventually figure things out, though there can be some confusion. When I tried to buy a couple of unknown fritters, I held up two fingers, expecting to receive two of them. The seller proceeded to give me eight of them. When I handed her a 1,000 kip note, she removed four of them from the bag. They turned out to be apple and were quite tasty. I knew after one bite, I wanted more than four of them and immediately handed her another 1,000 kip.

Later, George

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