Thursday, 21 September 2017

LTF MR2 - Day 4 : God's Window at Mekong Canyon


Wat Pa Tak Sua, sky bridge
Baan Mae Rim Nam, by the Mekong River
Baan Mae Rim Nam, our stay
View from the hotel
Riverside
Leaving Nong Khai, monks collecting alms
The resident dog was not too happy when we intrude into his territory
Waiting to regroup after the first climb
Second successful climb!

Sky Bridge
Sky Bridge
Dinner at Chontara
Sangkhom Riverview
Sangkhom Riverview
Sangkhom Riverview

 

Today was officially our first day in Thailand. Even though we had flown into Bangkok 3 days earlier, it was just a mere transit to Vientiane. Until now, we have yet to immerse ourselves in Thai cultures.

With this in mind, Alvin decided to start us off on the right tracks.... a Khao Tum breakfast of rice porridge, usually garnished with shredded ginger, garlic oil and celery leaves. The Chinese version replaces celery leaves with spring onions instead.







Unfortunately, Lady Luck was not with us this morning as the Khao Tum shop previously visited by our LTF Chief was not opened. We had to settle for braised pig trotter with rice while the faint hearted went for noodles instead! 

Leaving Nong Khai was easy!!! We cruised out of town, weaving past the town's hospital and shops trading in traditional wares and skills. Within minutes, we had hit the junction to Highway 242.

Eager to turn right, Claudine's chain dropped as she came up the slope. This was probably a last show of fury by the Ice Queen!!!

Mastering the art of handling chain drops by now, the team were soon riding again. We crossed Highway AH12, going under the flyover that leads to the Friendship Bridge. Many of us were oblivious to this as we were traveling on ground level with no aerial visions. Later, we spotted Nong Khai's old train station, looking forlorn and deserted.




We had a water stop midway to Thabo. Stopping under a shady tree, next to a market and with a temple opposite us, the street was surprisingly quiet on a Thursday morning.

After a quick quenching of thirst, we continued our journey. All this while, we were mostly riding on flat terrain and on rural roads with zero road shoulders.


Almost reaching Thabo, heavy road construction works were ongoing. The road was strewn with laterite soil that stirred up into clouds of dust whenever a vehicle screams past. Thankfully, we suffered minimal lung congestion as Alvin wisely steered away from the roadworks at the first opportunity, leading us to a delightful cafe in town!


Kooks Cafe with tasteful interior designs serves great Cha Ron on a hot mid morning. Their excellent service extends to the glass water dispensers that mete out iced cold water to its customers.

We spent a long time in Kooks, happy to escape the scorching sun. Some of us even thanked those who needed to use the toilet silently. The lavatory queue benefited us with extra rest time!

Finally, it was time to take leave. Stepping out, we made a peculiar observation. Kooks, sandwiched in between the old shophouses was a jewel that stood out amongst the old trades!

Approaching Si Chiangmai, we made a stop at a petrol station with a 7 Eleven. By then, we had clocked close to 50 clicks. More than half the journey done, we were all very relaxed, taking a longer stop than necessary.







KC and George hooked up with "Wayne Gardner" a super bike tourer who was curios with our entourage. VT was munching on microwaved corn and at the same time, discovered a new favourite desert; black glutinous rice in coconut cream!

Then, one by one, the stomachs began to strike. It started with Sue and then, Pete!!! While Sue had a hard time depositing, Pete was trying to hold down a tiny twister in him!!!!




Waiting patiently through the natural disaster, we were about to leave when Carolen had a bike problem! Her chain guard was bent in during air and train travel, rubbing slightly on the chain!!! George and KC had to go to her rescue!

On the move again, we finally hit the small town of Si Chiangmai but to Alvin's dismay, the intended lunch stop was not opened. Coming to Tesco-Lotus, a supermarket chain, we quickly U-turned out of the empty parking lot as it does not offer any food.








Cruising on the fringes of the town, we came upon a strange set up. A beautiful double storied "office", just next to a smaller shop offering fried rice, Pad Thai and Pho.

Alvin decided to make the stop even though we had travelled not more than 4 km from our earlier stop. We were going into the mountains soon and we can't go hungry!

Stop we did and another lengthy one as well. When we did hit the road again, we were surprised there were a few more eateries further down the road, but one can never tell what lies ahead!!!!

After the first climb!
Climbing up the mountain range, the real hills began. We were literally cutting through rubber estates, traveling on narrow trunk roads that hugged the hill slopes.

The plantations here are managed efficiently and economically. Optimum spacing of rubber trees, planted in alternate rows with tapioca plants ensures a steady food source for the farmers. On lower lands, small patches of paddy plots replaces the tuber as staple.

Once we crossed the mountain range, we began our descent. This time, we caught glimpses of the Mekong River.




On flats and at the foothills, we came upon a stall by the side of the road. Only one couple was dining at that time, probably past lunch hour. As for us, our stomachs were still filled with Pad Thai and fried rice from earlier on.

Hoping to get some cold drinks, the stall only had ice and water, both dispensed from eski containers. We helped ourselves to both, meaning to pay for them later but were overwhelmed when the stall owner refused payment! We were so touched by their sincerity, we insisted on a tip, all the same.

On the move once more, we were shocked when the climbs began all over again. This time, another mountain range awaits!

Climbing yet another slope half an hour later, we were welcomed by the sound of gushing water coming from behind a provincial school. Reaching the top of the hill, the road widens to make way for stalls and tour buses. A picnic spot by the river, Tharn Thong waterfalls was one of the main attractions here.



Coming down the slope, the road forked into 2 with the left one leading back to Nong Khai and Wat Pa Tak Sua, a famous temple in Sangkhom. A popular place of worship with the Buddhists, the non believers patronize it for the glass bridge that overlooks the Mekong canyon.







Taking the right fork, the road immediately dipped to a bridge below. Cruising slowly downhill, Claudine spotted a picnic area and immediately called for a photo stop. Everyone in her group stopped by the bridge but did not venture further. Emerging out from the river banks, Claudine was surprised she was the only one left!

On her own, she tried to catch up with the rest but was immediately met with a steep climb that left her winded. Racing ahead, the undulating hills continued, this time rewarding her with occasional glimpses of the river. There were at least 2 signboards pointing to scenic areas but all these had to be abandoned as catching up with the group was more essential.

She whizzed past the mounds of sand from dredging works...

She returned the motivating honks of the superbikers with a friendly wave. Possibly Wayne Gardner was amongst them...

After half an hour of sustaining the body through on/off anaerobic workout, she finally caught glimpses of the team as they come into town. By then, everyone had slowed down and veered right into Sangkhom Riverview, our stay for the night.




While we were all feeling victorious having clocked 88 km on our tiny bikes, a concerned Celia refused to celebrate with beer and soft drinks. Instead, she sat under the sun, in wait for the back riders. Even Sue, who brought a cold beer over to her finally gave up and returned to the cooler side of the hotel.

When the second team finally rolled in, we found out they had made a detour to Wat Pa Tak Sua....well perhaps only 1 km into the journey....before Pete decided everyone should turn back and return with a tuk tuk instead!!! Of course, that was after he checked with Mr Google and discovered they have steered off course from Sangkhom Riverview!



We were all assigned our rooms and met again an hour later for our short trip to Wat Pa Tak Sua. The short ride in the rented tuk-tuk felt precariously dangerous. With most of us bundled into the cargo area without seat belts, the driver was zipping through the country road at high speed, rolling over potholes without slowing down while taking on sharp bends at suicide speed!



Wat Pa Tak Sua at evening time was quiet. There were no huge crowds thronging the sky bridge. As in most temples in Thailand, they sold gold dust in amulet bottles, "gold" leaf with inscriptions and other charms.



We soon returned to our hotel as none of us were religious enough to go beyond the temple doors. Despite that, we do believe in GOD. The proof is in HIS creation which was laid before our eyes at the Mekong Canyon.



That evening, we took our bikes out for dinner at Chontara Grand Riverview Resort. We were in a celebratory mood ordering 2 large fried fish in Thai style and many other dishes but were surprised the bill came up to only RM200+!

After dinner, we went looking for a coffee place and were disappointed the cafe next to our hotel was closed from business as early as 8.30 pm. Even though the sign by the door says 9.00 pm, they still turned 9 riders away! What a laid back mentality!!! The Roscoes must have smirked when they heard us returning to the hotel for they had made the wise decision to skip coffee.

That night, Claudine and VT were upgraded to the presidential suite as the air conditioning in their chalet was not working. It was a huge room with a king sized mattress laid over an oversized bed made out of glass bricks. First impressions were good until they lay on the bed and smelt the soiled comforter! Most probably slept in by the staff???


Photo Credits :
KC 

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Sangkhom Riverview 



Friday, 1 September 2017

LTF MR2 - Day 3 : Ice Queen cometh, Escape from Vientiane



Personification of Ice Queen or struck by train???
Breakfast at Golden Sun Hotel
Patuxai
Patuxai, rich in Lao culture
One group photo before we leave Vientiane
Laos' CIQ
Immigration checkpoint, Laos
Leaving Laos
The gate marks the start of the Friendship Bridge
Still on Lao soil, approaching the bridge with the Mekong River below
Approaching Thailand
Sue, after her fall!!!
Thailand's CIQ
Nong Khai
You can't miss the train
Crossing the train tracks
Riding alongside Mekong River, overlooking Laos


"VT, the garlic pork ribs are fantastic!!!"

That was breakfast. 3 hours later, we were again, sitting down at Sister Nui's for juice and "subway" sandwiches. We ate so much, they ran out of bread!!! Nui's son had to go out to get us more baguette!!!


Earlier, we had spent the morning on a sightseeing tour of Vientiane. Making a stop at Patuxai and its adjacent water fountain, we marveled at its architecture which resembled the Arc de Triomphe from afar. However, on a closer look, it is rich in Lao influences; decorated with the country's mythical creatures such as the half bird, half female kinnari.

A war monument, dedicated to those who fought for the country's independence, it had taken 11 years for its completion. Funded by the Americans and cement intended for a new airport, it seems the Lao government had got their priorities all wrong. An airport, as a gateway for trade could have moved the economy much faster than a "vertical runway" which serves no purpose other than pride.




Our sightseeing continued on to Pha That Luang, a golden stupa containing the holy relic of Lord Buddha. With histories dating back to the 3rd century, what started off as a Hindu temple has since evolved into a Buddhist place of worship. Modern day, the facade has changed totally, taking on a new look after years of plundering and bombardment.


Outside the temple grounds, an open market was haven to souvenier seekers. Sue and Carolen spent some time shopping and haggling with the vendors. Following them on a procurement mission, it was fascinating to see how the price of a bracelet fluctuates like the stock market. Starting from 70,000 kips each at the first stall, it peaked at 200,000 kips for 2 before finally stabilizing at 35,000 kips each!

Waiting for the lost lambs...
Waiting for the lost lambs...after too long!

Leaving Sister Nui, we were to head back to Nong Khai but Vientiane would not allow us to leave!!! VT and the Roscoes were swallowed by Vientiane's chaotic traffic! We finally found them after more than half an hour and 3 search attempts!

As we headed in the direction of Friendship Bridge; again, the lingering arms of Vientiane pulled us back. Right before the roundabout that led us out of the city, George had a puncture. VT, who signaled his wife, did not mention a flat. She assumed it was a call to slow down as we had been spinning quickly, egged on by the cool and wet weather left by dwindling rain clouds.

The Roscoes who sensed the missing sweeper and his ward, stopped right at the roundabout and as the front runners went ahead oblivious to what was happening, Claudine had to give chase. Catching up with the first group later, Wendy reported on the puncture which induced Alvin and Claudine to turn back, leaving the rest to seek shelter at a bus stop.

It was a long wait. Alvin bought drinks from a nearby 7 Eleven, sending supplies to his stranded victims...VT and George just before the roundabout, Wendy and The Roscoes at the roundabout and the rest, at the bus stop further away.

Not having enough, Celia and Sue went out for more supplies returning with bags of ice, plastic bags with straws and bottled drinks for sharing. Pouring the drinks into bags filled with ice was a common practice for the yellow skinned but Carolen was amazed by the whole concept!!!


When the wait was finally over, we proceeded to the Friendship Bridge with no more hiccups....or so we thought! Arriving at the Laos border, the officers were quick to direct us to park our bikes and to proceed on foot to the immigration counter. Once cleared, we had to show him proof of stamping before we could leave Laos with our bikes.

The Friendship Bridge is, but a narrow cantilever bridge with a railway track in the center. Much like a tram line, the bridge is closed to traffic whenever a train chugs past. A pedestrian path, slightly elevated from the road with concrete dividers keeps pedestrians safe during crossing though we saw none on both days of travel.



Be very cautious when crossing the bridge and remember to hold your ground all the time. Drivers keep a safe distance from cyclists, following behind patiently whenever there are visible traffic ahead. When overtaking, they swerve to the center, sometimes over the train tracks, to give a good leeway!

The tricky bit would appear to be the train tracks. Curving from land to bridge, it crosses our path at an angle. If not alert, our narrow bike wheels could wedge into the groove.

Following behind Wendy as we left Laos, Claudine saw her stopping her bike right before the tracks before crossing on foot. Conscious of the potential danger, Claudine angled her wheels to a 90 degrees against the line before rolling over.

Sue was not as lucky. It seems Vientiane was angry we had escaped her crutches. She continued to pursue us....

Crossing the tracks on Thailand's side, Sue's back wheels fell into the grooves causing her to fall! The loss of balance bruised her bad shoulder, sprained her fingers and tore her expensive jersey. Her ego taking the worst brunt, she quickly picked herself up. Little did she realize, her phone was still on the train tracks!

Sue only realized her missing phone when we finally arrived at Ban Mae Rim Nam, our accommodation for the night. Dusk was approaching and a missing phone was almost the end of the world, considering the amount of data stored in it. Nobody wants to lose this all important gadget!

Celia who visits Thailand often enough volunteered to return to the accident site with her. Asking the receptionist for help, they managed to get a tuk tuk.

As mentioned earlier, phones has become more than a communication tool. Seeking google translate, Celia managed to convince the CIQ officers to allow them access to the site.

The phone was found but the train had since passed. The screen was cracked so badly, it looked like frost on a winter morning. Ice Queen cometh, she breathes on us, all the way from
Vientiane!




That night, Alvin took us to Dee Dee restaurant for a Thai dinner. Sue was thrilled her simcard was still intact. Nobody tried their luck on the lottery tickets, pushed to us by the many street vendors!



After dinner as customary in most LTF tours, we continued the night with a walk down glutton street. While most returned to the hotel with a takeaway Cha Yen, our Chief Food Officer had something more.....Pad Thai fully loaded with lard!!!


Photo Credits :
Ped Al
KC Au Yeong