Thursday, 17 January 2013

106. Over the Phi Pan Nam's and back to Laos

 Kio Lom lake

An unidentified click from Ellie's cranks and bottom bracket followed us northwards out of Lampang, so we turned back and found the friendly mechanic who had replaced her bottom bracket over our Christmas sojourn and he fiddled around, including greasing the pedals and we set off again, this time in a more comfortable silence.

 Ellie with Mam, Mike and Theo

With our passports spending Christmas and the New Year at the Chinese consulate in Chiang Mai, we had a few days to spare as we headed for Phayao and the Phi Pan Nam mountain range, so the pace was relaxed. Forty kilometres north of Lampang we stopped by Kio Lom lake – a dammed reservoir that is home to a giant Siam cement factory and party boats as well as some dramatic scenery. Searching for a camping spot, we encountered the local village fixer, Mr.Chang, who suggested a couple of spots before he took us over to Theo and Mam's garden and their veranda amid the teak trees on the lakeshore. A call to the absent owners confirmed we could camp for the evening, they would return shortly. In the meantime we set off on a sunset tour of the lake in Mr.Chang's pirogue. When he turned the outboard off warbled karaoke songs drifted across the water from the party boats that groups hire for the day to go drinking large quantities of Hong Thong and serenade each other.

Pepper for sale by the roadside

Back on dry land, we met Swedish Theo and Mam and their son Mike and we headed off with Theo for a dinner of steamed fish and rice in the cafe over the road where the only other customers had clearly been at the fish and the Hong Thong for most of the day with fish bones and fins across the table top and three large empty bottles of whiskey on the floor and one of the four participants inert from the afternoon binge. His larger friends were still going though and every so often wobbled over to our table to get us to join them in toasting in a new year which was still a couple of days away. The villagers made their living from fishing and hiring out the party boats – an assortment of floating platforms on old barrels, some of which looked more lake-worthy than others, but all equipped with an out-house and karaoke machine. We headed off to bed and were awoken by a joyous Mr.Chang beaming into our tent shortly before 7 a.m. with enormous portions of fish laap (spicy minced fish) and rice. 

By New Year's eve, we'd had our first climb in the Phi Pan Nam's and descended into Phayao, where we joined the locals on the lakefront to bring in the New Year to a barrage of fireworks and a steady stream of parafin-fuelled plastic lanterns that fluttered up into the night sky. Hardly very environmentally friendly but we got into the spirit of the occasion and set one off. It crash landed into a pile of dry bamboo and the actions of an agile youth narrowly averted disaster when he stamped it out. Multiple generations gathered on picnic mats by the lake, with food and Hong Thong in hand, while food vendors and a baby elephant wandered the crowds in search of sustenance. 

A sunny New Year brought some wonderful news from home – my long-suffering uncle was destined to receive a kidney transplant. Calling home the following day expecting some positive updates, the tragic news came that he had passed away just a short while before. At times like this home feels like such a far away place and the phone so inadequate to lend support and give hugs to the family. Amidst this news we left our bikes in Phayao and made the trip to Chiang Mai by bus to fetch our passports and the 60-day visas that the consulate had given us.

With a mixture of heavy hearts but also the life-affirming hope that can emerge from such trying times, we left Phayao bound for Nan province and our border crossing into Laos at Huay Khon. With just four days left on our Thai visa, we had  to keep moving to cross the mountains. After an easy day's ride past Chiang Kham, we had a tough second day with almost 2000 metres ascent over 70-odd kilometres. Following that we rode into the night for the final leg into the town of Tha Wang Pha where I had arranged a stay with warmshower's hosts Ethan and Skye, who live and teach at a school near the town. They had recently cycled the US west coast and were keen to repay other cyclists with the hospitality that they had received and they did a great job – fetching dinner from the night market for us all while we cleaned up and then we chatted for the evening.

Next day we made an unintended detour to Pua on our way to Thung Chang when I missed our turn but it gave us a chance to stock up on industrial quantities of museli and weetabix at our last Tesco's in Thailand. By the time we reached Thung Chang in the early afternoon, we decided to save the remaining 50 km to the border for the next day, as well as another 1500 metre climb.

Until 2009, the little border village of Huay Khon was a remote crossing only used by Thai and Lao traders on either side of the border. In the last couple of year's however the post was upgraded to an international crossing with foreigners permitted to use it also. The key impetus for the change in status has been the development of the Hongsa power plant by a Thai company in Hongsa valley, 40 km across the border into Laos. This lignite-fuelled power plant is set to come online in 2015 and will sell electricity over the border to Thailand. A joint Thai-Lao venture that also seems to involve Chinese companies, the environmentally contentious project has involved the relocation of over 2000 people according to a Vientiane Times article I read. We arrived into Hongsa after forty hilly but pleasant kilometres on what must be the best stretch of highway in Laos, across northern Sayaboury province, from the border town of Muang Ngeun. The area is dominated by the Thai-Lu ethnic group and was the scene of a short border skirmish between Thai and Lao forces in 1988.

With little (no) room for much public debate on the pro's and con's of the proposed power plant, the construction is well underway and one of the three massive cooling towers will soon be complete. A giant swathe of earth and forest has been peeled back and the lignite will be strip-mined to fuel the plant. Some of the sparse information that I came across pointed to the fact that such an environmentally and socially sensitive project would potentially have a more difficult  time securing permission in Thailand and this might be one possible motivation why the Laos site was chosen. The construction was providing many jobs for Thais too, with heavy trucks ferrying cement and other materials over the mountains and crossing at Huay Khon. All we had to do to find our way was follow the noise and fumes.

 Into Laos and approaching Hongsa valley and the new power station

Finding the German-run Jumbo guesthouse in Hongsa town was harder than expected but we eventually spotted an elephant in the distance and met Pierre and Annette atop and followed them back to the guesthouse where Monica let us camp in the garden. Monica used to work on tourism initiatives with the German development organisation, GTZ, and set up the elephant treks over the past couple of years. Unfortunately a trek was beyond our means but Ellie was able to feed the elephant some bananas one morning and he liked them as much as I do. Pierre and Annette had retired to Luang Prabang from Switzerland a couple of years ago and kindly invited us to come and stay with them when we reached Luang Prabang in a few days time.

 A power plant, a pylon and an abandoned house in Hongsa valley

There are a couple of options by road from Hongsa to Luang Prabang – a direct dirt road or a longer route via Sayaboury on a mostly sealed road. We chose the latter and were happy with our choice when we saw the dust billowing up by construction trucks at the turn off for the more direct dirt road. Getting softer perhaps. Both ways are steep, however, and grades of 15% on many of the slopes meant it was a hard first day out of Hongsa. When we eventually began our descent through a pretty river gorge, we opted to ask at a small roadside village about a camp spot and were directed by the friendly but surprised owner to his living room where we pitched up to avoid the mosquitos. Traditional thatched houses and wooden stilted ones stood amongst the fewer new concrete houses while chickens, pigs and dogs and all their young ran around in the early evening. Dozens of kids then watched as I brought out the Laos map and we all tried to decide where their village should be on th map. After studying us intensely for half an hour, a generator came on and they all ran to crowd around the TV that beamed in images of another world. Later the owner invited us to join him for fish and rice dinner on the floor of his house. We went to sleep after our passport details were recorded in the village ledger whilst a jovial meeting of some men from the village took place in the same where we had pitched the tent.

 Ellie follows Pierre and Annette and their jungle mobile to Jumbo guesthouse in Hongsa

The next day we made it to the rather non-descript provincial capital of Sayaboury and spent the night there before an excellent sandwich breakfast at the local market where fresh baguettes, a wonderful French legacy, were filled with vegetables, tofu and dried fish. We covered the paved thirty km to the ferry crossing at Thadeua where the Mekhong lay low in the rocky river bed. The new bridge is almost complete and stood high above us as we splashed onto the rickety old ferry. From here the road was being upgraded and road works threw up a variety of dust, tar and stones so when we reached Muang Nan we decided to follow a mixture of local advice and Pierre's about the small dirt road via Paksi along the Mekhong to Luang Prabang.

It was a wonderful route and any trepidations gradually faded away when we met an exhausted Englishman pedalling in the other direction. Nick filled us in on what to expect – several river crossings, some short steep ascents but largely fine. We had planned to camp and by sunset and just 50 km short of Luang Prabang we asked at a village if we could pitch up. We were given permission to camp at the school. This would have been a blissful spot overlooking the river below and complete with a covered area to keep us dry from the night-time dew and water taps. However, all was not to be as we were invited back to stay in the village with a family. I washed under the village tap with giggling young boys for an audience before we were fed sticky rice and fried eggs for dinner. Later, however, perhaps in an effort to impress their visitors, a rattling generator was hooked up and a TV fetched from a neighbours house. Ellie had fallen asleep on our mattress on the floor but was soon awoken by a Laos karaoke video at full volume. Finally I laid down too and after an hour or so our hosts turned the TV off and we descended back into the merciful peace of the night as I contemplated the real benefits of technological development.

The next afternoon we arrived into Luang Prabang and met up with Pierre and Annette who had cycled in the few kilometres from where they live north of the town to meet us. After treating us to a wonderful dinner, we followed them back on the dirt road through the night to their wonderful home that they have been working on for the past year or so, that overlooks the Mekhong and is made almost entirely with wood and decorated with Laos handicrafts that they have collected since their time here. We have spent the last few days doing very little and eating a lot with daily forays into town for supplies or meetings with friends. Ellie's school friend Jess and Sam are also pedalling through the region and we got to spend time with them and enjoy the Luang Prabang night market again with its dollar buffets, fresh spring rolls and grilled fish.

Getting the ferry across the Mekhong at Thadua

 The wonderful road to Luang Prabang from Muang Nan along the Mekhong

Many thanks for more recent and very generous donations that have brought the fundraising up to 917 euro! Anyone wishing to contribute to the work of the Dublin-based Peter McVerry Trust can do so on my webpage at here. Thanks again.

Luang Prabang, Laos

ODO: 65,990 km

View The Slow Way Home - Map 2 in a larger map


Sam Gunner said...

Well done for getting the blog up, despite the power cuts. We've had a rather uninspiring day trying to book flights out of Hanoi for a months time. An 08:00 visit to the Vietnam consulate this morning makes it sounds like I shouldn't have any problems being allowed in, as long as we're there before the 31st.

Very good to meet you both over the last few days. Good luck with the rest of your trip! Let us know when you're heading through the UK and we'd be proud to escort you for a while!

Have fun,
Sam and Jess

Julian Bloomer said...

Thanks Sam!

That's great news about the Vietnamese visa.

Best of luck with the boat to Nong Khai and the route over to the border. Really enjoyed that stretch.

Stay well and see you in awhile,