Friends: Day seven in Laos and we see our first hammer and sickle. It was on a flag outside an apartment building on the outskirts of Ventiane, the capital. We arrived early this afternoon and in our initial exploration of this city of 140,000 we've only seen a couple more.
We've returned to our old friend the Mekong, which we left five days ago in Luang Prabang. It is now better than a kilometer wide and remains the border with Thailand. There is a bridge about twenty miles out of town, built with Japanese funding less than ten years ago. There isn't another bridge for hundreds of miles. We intend to linger for a couple of days here before heading over to Vietnam a couple hundred miles to the east. I was reminded of Belize City and Calcutta as we made our way into the heart of this city. Everything here is fairly ramshackle and dilapidated and makeshift. I kept waiting for things to improve as we reached the central business district, but it is largely one big shantytown. Every building has been in need of a coat of paint for a decade or two or three. The streets are all in need of resurfacing. Yet, it has its charms. Its not pretending to be anything other than what it is.
There are wide boulevards, thanks to the French. Laos, like Vietnam, was once a French colony. There's little traffic, so the motorbikes ride several abreast. There are some bicyclists, but not a great many. I was able to find several bike shops around the market, as I am in need of spokes. I have gone through the three spares I brought for my front wheel. I still have three slightly longer ones for my rear. My bike survived the much rougher roads of Bolivia earlier this year without a broken spoke, but I've had a spate of bad luck here. It is much more common for spokes on the rear wheel to break from the brunt of the weight, mine and my gear, but my 48-spoke rear tandem hub has been imperturbable over the years. The 36-spokes up front ought to be enough, but my problems go back to the slight pretzeling my front wheel suffered at the hands of American Airlines into Helsinki a year-and-a-half ago. I was able to straighten the wheel then and survive 2,500 miles in Scandinavia with only one broken spoke up front. I thought I needn't be concerned after that. I've put another 3,500 miles on the bike since then without repercussions. I'm not sure when I've broken the spokes, but I may not be as wary of rough spots as I chat away with Laurie. I had to stop at several shops before I found one with the spokes I needed at a tenth what it would cost back home. I also bought a tire. My rear tire had developed a bulge and needed replacing. I've still been flat free the thousand miles we've come. Laurie has had one, back in Thailand just as we were leaving a small supermarket, an easy place to replace the tube.
Our greatest trauma of the trip, other than when speedboating, came last night as our good fortune in finding a place for the night just as it got dark failed us. We reached a good-sized town that we were certain would have a guest house or hotel at our appointed time, dusk, but it had none. As we slowly trolled through the town, looking and asking for a place to stay, a guy on a motorcycle, who was fluent in English, pulled up alongside us and asked the usual "where are you from/where are you going." He told us there were no accommodations to be found in this town, but there was one five kilometers down the road. It is so rare to find an English speaker in a town such as this, unfrequented by travelers, and to have such a person come to us, Laurie was convinced he had to be a "guardian angel," and felt relieved that with such luck, we had no reason to ever be concerned. I could not disagree.
When someone tells us a place is five kilometers away we know it could be anywhere from four to eight kilometers, if we're lucky. By the time we had gone four it was pitch dark. We had bright flashing red lights to safeguard us from traffic approaching from behind, and our headlights could alert traffic coming towards us, but they weren't bright enough to search out hotels unless their signs were obvious and well-lit. We stopped several times to ask if the guest house we had been told about was still ahead. Someone with a smattering of English said it was two kilometers further on the right. I understood someone else to say there was a Vang Veng Resort ahead with a wave to the left.
The road at this point, closing in on Ventiane had widened to include a shoulder, the first in 150 miles, affording us some breathing room from the minimal traffic. We welcomed what there was, as it illuminated the road. We were riding at half-speed in the pitch dark. We could follow the road okay, but we could barely discern what debris or objects might lay about it. We were getting nervous, though Laurie said, "I'm not freaking out yet." As always, she has been an exceptional traveling companion, accepting the bad with the good and not stressing out, even when it would have been easy to. After seven-and-a-half kilometers we saw a neon sign and some flashing Christmas tree type lights up ahead on the left. The sign said, "Vang Veng Resort." There was no indication, however, how far it was down the side road. We climbed a slight hill and then saw more flashing Christmas lights adorning several structures on the shores of a small lake.
A guy came trotting over to us and said to follow him to the accommodations. Around the bend we saw a dozen bungalows with different colored tin roofs laid out in a neat horseshoe. It looked like it could be expensive, at least compared to what we had been paying. How much were we prepared to pay for this? We had yet to pay more than five dollars for a hotel. Moments ago we would have been happy to pay anything for a bed. No response from Laurie. If its too much we could simply ask to camp. She still didn't reply. The guy asked if we wanted a room with air conditioning or a fan. We were glad to have a choice. The bungalows weren't as nice on the inside as they looked from the outside. They had no hot water and came with a squat toilet. The price was 50,000 kip, less than five dollars.
We had the resort to ourselves. It was a most surreal setting. We were the only ones in a dining room with twenty-five tables. There was live music coming from one of the light-bedecked buildings by the lake. When we wandered over after dinner, there were only two men sitting and listening to a three-piece band. It was a newly constructed complex and had yet to be discovered. They must have had cash problems, as we were charged 4,000 kip for a bottle of water that we didn't even ask for and should have cost 2,000 kip at most. At other hotels we weren't even charged for such a bottle. But it was still a pittance and nothing to be upset about, only an incongruity to add to a bunch of other incongruities. The next morning we were charged triple the normal price for eggs and coffee. A kilometer down the road, we came upon that elusive guesthouse on the right hand side that others had told us about.