Counting our blessings, and also our kip, baht, and dollars - Unchained Melody - CycleBlaze

December 24, 2023

Counting our blessings, and also our kip, baht, and dollars

Champasak, Laos, to Sirindorn, Thailand

Dear little friends,

As much as we loved our riverside guesthouse, and we really did, there was a fly in the ointment, or rather, a mosquito, several mosquitoes actually. They would not leave us alone at night! They were driving us mad! One of us would wake up to that whine in our ear and reach for the mosquito racquet and swing wildly around, but to no avail. Bruce thought the mosquitoes were too small and just went right through the racquet. I thought probably it may just be our sleep-deprived aim. Either way, they got worse every night and we weren’t getting enough sleep.

It was Christmas Eve morning although that doesn’t mean very much over here, although occasionally you see some sort of tinsel-wrapped cone and somebody in a Santa hat. We turned on the lights, had a bit of muesli with the last two small bananas, packed up, took one last look out at the beautiful Mekong sunrise then unlocked and slid open the guesthouse metal gate. Thailand here we come.

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The valley north of Champasak is really beautiful, with a striated ridge of jungle mountains to the west. On our flight leg from Bangkok to Tokyo in January we flew a bit north of here and had an entire view of the mountains and valley and the Mekong. We had some real concerns about the cold wind coming from the north but it was calm for at least the first few miles, the highway was in good shape, we rolled merrily along.

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Janice BranhamA delightful road to cycle
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1 month ago
Total takeover of a roadside stand by termites!
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Eventually the winds woke up, and it got to be a bit more work, although it was a really nice day and I welcomed the coolness. Bruce wore his “fuzzo”, his fleece jacket, all day long. I wore a long-sleeved shirt for the first time since I peeled it off in the Saigon airport 6 weeks ago.

An enormous mimosa, a tree we call "the blessing tree" because so often they hug riverbanks or tower over schoolyards with blessed shade and coolness.
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Leaving Champasak province.
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A very unusual/rare and colorful Christian cemetery near the junction. Many of the graves are in the Vietnamese style, but it's not clear if these were Vietnamese folks (there are many Catholics in Vietnam)
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We joined the highway that connects to the bridge to Pakse, but instead turned west toward the border, this was a lot better and sometimes the wind actually helped us, it was gusting to 15-20 mph at times. We took this road 15 years ago and my memory of it was of cows and rice fields, and there are still cows and rice fields (Laos has a LOT of cows, very nice looking ones) but now there are lots more built up areas with businesses and schools and such. 

I asked Bruce to take this photo of three iconic Isaan/Lao items, the phin (guitar), the khene (a piped instrument), and of course the sticky rice basket. I own a phin that I occasionally try to master, or at least make progress on.
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Scott AndersonYou have a phin! We should have a phin/gong concert at one of our HAC gatherings.
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1 month ago

We kept looking for a place to stop and have one last coffee Lao, but the opportunity didn’t really arise until about 7-8 miles before the border, where we stopped and had an iced one each, stashed the cups in our cupholder thingies, and put our heads down for the last bit. The line seems to be on a small pass, that uphill was a bit of a grind and there were lots of large trucks hauling double loads of sliced up tapioca roots. One of those guys tried to run me down as he entered the highway but I wisely gave way and went around the back of his truck with a blue cloud of profanity coming from my saintly mouth. 

These girls were buying pickled things from the woman who was making our coffee.
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We had 19,000 kip left, just slightly under a dollar. There was a small market where we offloaded the kip for a box of Lactasoy, our go-to soymilk available nearly everywhere that we use on muesli. The guy wanted 20,000 for it, very overpriced, but glumly accepted our last kip, what a deal.

Duty free what?
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All this good stuff we could have bought instead of Lactasoy.
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Duty free dried frogs. The things the Lao consider good to export!
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Scott AndersonThat’s really remarkable. It must put many departing tourists in a quandary though - the Marlboroughs, the Beer Lao, or the dried frogs? Spoiled for choice.
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1 month ago
Rachael AndersonYou should have bought some. I’m sure it’s high in protein!
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1 month ago
Bruce LellmanTo Rachael AndersonI sure don't see a lot of meat on these frogs. They must be for making broth - frog broth. Yum! I hadn't thought of that but now I wish I had bought a few dozen and had you over for dinner someday.
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1 month ago
Ron SuchanekHmm, I'd ask you to bring some of the dried frogs, but I've got all I can use right now.
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1 month ago

Once again we were at a large border area with very little informational signage, it takes a long time to figure out where you need to go to get stamped out. Most of the traffic is in vehicles, with a few foot passengers and lots of milling around and NOBODY willing to point us the right way with our bikes. Eventually we stumbled on a sign and a stairway, up to the Stamping Gods, we took turns and fended off the hawkers and moneychangers, got stamped, came back down the stairs, and then had to figure out where to go next. Most places you get one last person inspecting your passport to make sure you got your exit stamp, not so here apparently. Bruce is going to interject more about this.

Moto taxi drivers waiting around at Lao immigration. We each had to go inside that building, ascend a set of stairs, walk past the uniformed women eating their lunch, and get stamped out at a window. Then explain that we needed to go back to retrieve our bikes. Good times.
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Rachael AndersonSounds awful especially after your ride there!
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1 month ago

There is a definite attitude men in uniforms acquire in Asia.  It's a superiority over everyone who needs something of them and I hate it so much.  It has been especially bad in the guys controlling the immigration crossings we've had leaving Cambodia, entering Lao and then leaving Lao.  

I had already had my passport stamped inside the building when we were leaving Lao and because we are on bikes we had to ride through the gate where cars go through.  I tried to show the guy in the booth that we had been stamped already and he gave me such a quick look that he didn't comprehend that we had already been stamped or that we were sitting on bikes.  He just pointed me to the building from where we had just come and immediately went back to his business of looking busy.  He wouldn't look at me again even though I tried to talk with him.   So I got mad and gave up. I told Andrea, "Let's just go around this gate then and get out of here."  And we did.  Fortunately no one came after us but if they had they would have seen the stamps in our passports.

In contrast, arriving in Thailand there was again confusion as to where we needed to go to get our visa-on-arrival.  We didn't need to go inside the building so that was more efficient.  We rode up like we were cars and at one booth a man told us to go to another booth.  When we went to that booth the same man had entered that booth and he motioned for us to go just around the corner to the opposite window.  I waited in front of that third window for just a moment.  I couldn't see inside because the glass was so scratched.  Then, the same man opened the window and laughing said, "Good morning!"  He made our runaround to three windows into a fun thing.  THIS is the difference in Thais, even Thais wearing uniforms.  They are friendly but more than that, Thais all want to have fun, make a joke, see the humor, laugh together with us.  THIS is Thailand.  THIS is why we love the Thais.  THIS/HE made our entry into Thailand a joy.

Why didn't we arrive by wheelbarrow, it would have been so less confusing, oh wait, that lane was closed.
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Ron SuchanekYou know, there's nothing more aggravating than loading myself into the wheelbarrow, navigating the insane traffic and hills in the wheelbarrow, and arriving to the wheelbarrow lane at the border only to find it closed.
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1 month ago
Bruce LellmanTo Ron SuchanekExactly!
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1 month ago

The road of travel moves from right to left, which is where they drive in Thailand. We were stamped in, entered the scrum on the other side, and headed off to a guesthouse a couple of miles away.

A great selection of sticky rice baskets just inside Thailand.
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Mark LellmanI'm really glad to see that these are still made, and not replaced with some Chinese dreck YET.
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1 month ago
Bruce LellmanTo Mark LellmanMe too! I love sticky rice baskets. There are elements creeping in, however, that I don't like. Like the bottom part of the larger black and white ones is plastic. And all the carrying cords are plastic now days. I liked the natural fiber ones but they seem to be gone.
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1 month ago
This is the tallest bougainvillea we've ever seen.
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Scott AndersonI’ll bet you’re playing tricks with us here. That looks like a tiny house to me.
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1 month ago
Bruce LellmanTo Scott AndersonWe don't play tricks. We're very serious all the time.
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1 month ago

It’s tiring and stressful to cross borders. It’s tiring and stressful to ride 40 miles in a strong wind. It was Christmas Eve and we hadn’t seen a place to buy a SIM card at the border, or change money. We had leftover baht for the guesthouse but their restaurant menu was insanely overpriced with fancy food we didn’t want. Our little bungalow was cute, the kind we like, but… no WiFi. 

This is kind of unheard of, actually. We’d never dreamed there would be no WiFi, and while ordinarily this is not a kiss of death or anything, today it was because it was Christmas, I wanted to contact my family, I was tired and stressed. I started crying, silently crying, no-tears crying, but crying.

Cute, right? But no WiFi.
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Well, we won't probably lose THIS key.
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I don’t cry often on trips so Bruce takes that seriously. I bitch and moan and complain on trips but rarely do I cry. We tried to figure out a solution. We had a goal to reach Ubon Ratchathani on Christmas Day but it was 58 miles away and the wind was still going to be coming from the north in the morning. Finally, we jumped back on our bikes, leaving our panniers in the bungalow, and headed back to the border area to see what was what. 

There’s a “bus station” there, but it was afternoon and not much happening. The minivans were different than the Cambodian ones, they were wall-to-wall seats all the way to the back, no room at all for cargo or bikes. There were little trucks that didn’t go all the way to Ubon. But we could maybe take one of those in the morning at least to Phibun, a dump of a place we stayed 4 years ago, then we could either catch another truck/bus/minivan there, or ride the last 30 miles, straight west, the wind hopefully at our backs.

Inside the bus station was a table with a girl selling SIM cards. I was on that like flies on fish poop. There was a lady slinging pad khrapao at her wok. We hadn’t eaten since our tiny muesli breakfast, we set to. I should report here that Bruce started this trip with about $70 worth of Thai baht leftover from last year’s trip so that’s how we were able to take these lifesaving measures and pay for the guesthouse. 

Once I had phone service I shot off a text to my kids that we were safely in Thailand, we ate our pad khrapao, which was a little too spicy for me, and then walked around the border area looking for moneychangers, who were oddly absent. Nor were there any banks or even Western Unions. Mind you, this was kind of an unusual border, in that we didn’t see ONE western foreigner at all. I know tourists take buses between Pakse and Bangkok but we sure didn’t see any of them, maybe they were all holed up somewhere for Christmas.

Finally Bruce stepped into a gold shop to inquire, back in the day in Myanmar that was the only place to change money, back before ATMs and real banking institutions. The gold shop lady was polite and helpful. No, they didn’t change money, but she kindly walked us up to a shopkeeper that did. The rate was ridiculously low but I changed money anyway. So now we had adequate funds for whatever adventure we had in the morning, I had a working phone, things were looking up. Bruce stepped into the 7-11 and came out with ice cream bars and we sat on the dusty concrete and counted our Christmas blessings.

Near the money-changer, a stack o' fireworks. And water.
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Back at the “resort” we told the owners we had already eaten so they could spare us their stupid food on offer, took our showers, and collapsed into bed. After a night of mosquito hell we were mercifully unmolested and slept our first night back in Thailand. 

Thailand is the dessert country, you save it for last. We’re going to be here until the end of the trip (which will mean extending our visa but that’s a story for 30 days from now) and while it was a rough-ish beginning we were safe, clean, connected to family, and it was lights out at 6:30.

Today's ride: 48 miles (77 km)
Total: 520 miles (837 km)

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Rachael AndersonWhat an awful day! I’d of been crying, too! I hope everything works out for you tomorrow!
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1 month ago