11,041 km so far.
Border crossing days are always a little anxiety provoking. You just never really know what’s going to happen.
Thanks to the magic of the internet, we were pretty sure we’d managed to unravel the conflicting information out there and figure out exactly what we needed to do and where we needed to do it to get ourselves across the border.
We Built A Bridge, Now Pay Us To Cross It
Here’s how the crossing from Huay Xai to Chiang Khong goes as of today. I make no promises for future crossings, since the rules around here seem to be changing with alarming frequency. You might want to skip this section if you’re not about to cycle this route.
First, we ride 10 km south of Huay Xai to the newly opened Friendship Bridge. Then we check out of Laos, which is surprisingly swift and uneventful. After that, we pay a man $7.50 each for bus tickets over the bridge. Under no circumstances is anyone allowed to ride bikes across the bridge. Because the government wants to make money.
The bus we put our bikes on was not a bus designed to have bikes put on it. The least they could do is purchase some of those airport runway busses with the giant doors and cargo spaces. But no. There is just a tiny undercarriage and so we have to take our panniers and front wheels off while a dozen other passengers wait for us.
After our tune-up in Hanoi, both of our front brake release cables are so tight that it’s impossible to release them without prying them with a tool. This makes getting our tires off painful, when it should be painless. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without Stephen’s help. Also, our bikes are covered in road dirt from the last few days, so now, we are covered in road dirt too.
After we are finally loaded, the bus goes 2.4 km across the completely empty bridge, upon which bicycles could very easily travel. We unpile our bikes from the bus and reassemble them, reverse-prying our brake cables back into place.
Stephen’s note: Until a few months ago a local would take you across the Mekong on their boat in a matter of minutes for $1.25. Then you had to wander over to the immigration office and check in with the authorities. I can see why you might not want to trust people to go to immigration under their own steam, but the detour and added cost is slightly annoying.
We fill out our Thai arrival and departure cards, and as we’re doing that, one of the officials asks if we want to change our kip to baht. Why yes we do. They give us a pretty good exchange rate, and send us on our way. Roughly two minutes at Thai immigration, at which there is a modern desk, a man in uniform, and an actual webcam to take our pictures, and we are in Thailand!
As citizens of a G7 country, not only are we granted visa-exempt travel in Thailand, we are given 30 days, which is a recent upgrade from the 15 you used to get at land border crossings. And it’s free.
Now that’s how you attract tourists to your country, people.
Once through all the formalities, we turn our bikes back the way we came, albeit on the other side of the Mekong, and ride 15 km into Chiang Khong. Roughly 2.5 hours after we set off this morning, we are about 500 m from where we started.
We haven’t really considered Thailand much. I know that sounds stupid, but while you’re travelling, it’s hard to find time to look ahead at the countries you plan to visit.
As soon as we cross the border, wave after wave of realisations about this new country hit us.
First, in Thailand, you drive on the left-hand side of the road. Even though we lived in England for 10 years, it completely messes with our minds to switch sides after 11,000 km of riding.
Once we get going on the correct side of the road, we notice the cars. For a start, there are cars – lots of them! Most of them are left-hand drive, despite the road situation – and they are going fast. Big trucks are also flying by at speeds we haven’t seen since Europe.
In our first 10 minutes in the country, we pass by several fancy coffee shops, three brand-name ice-cream carts (Nestle! Carnation! Walls!), and stores that look like actual stores. And then, in the distance, we see it. The sign looms large as we approach.
I pound my handlebars in delight. I can buy a real bar of chocolate!
As Stephen heads into the store, I briefly worry that the meagre pile of baht we got at the border won’t be enough. And then I realise that they probably even take credit cards. They do. Amazing.
This is the first time in five months that we are not in a Communist country, and we are already revelling in the capitalist wonder of it all.
Sitting in the parking lot watching our bikes while Stephen shops, I contemplate our giddy reaction to the giant suburban grocery store. Especially after living in the US, we are children of plenty, used to being able to buy whatever we want when we want it. We didn’t really notice that we had been “going without” over the last few months, until we were confronted by this megamart of everythingness.
Stephen comes out with a huge bar of fruit and nut chocolate and three donuts from Mister Donut. For those of you worried that we have been losing weight, your worries are over.
We are back in the land of readily available highly calorific treats.
Up A Hill In Hell
The extra-distance and border-crossing delay this morning (plus the half hour at Tesco) meant that it was starting to heat up by the time our ride really got going. We knew we had some ups and downs coming, and one big hellish hill in our near future. The little ups and downs were pretty taxing, but nothing compared to the up.
By the time we got to the top, we were both dripping in sweat and more than ready for a break. Luckily, there were a couple of drink stands at the summit. Stephen got a Coke, and I got a magical concoction made of a big scoop of green tea-flavoured powder, a good dollop of condensed milk, water, and a whole bag of ice.
Lord have mercy, this might be the best thing I’ve ever tasted.
We sat drinking our drinks, celebrating that the hard part of the day was over and that we’d just passed 11,000 km ridden.
Then Stephen took a second look at the elevation graph.
Do you want the good news or the bad news? Actually, there’s only bad news.
The hill we’d just climbed was not THE hill, it was just a small sampler of the monster yet to come.
By the time we got to the foot of the second hill, it was just after 1pm. The sun was beating down so fiercely that each ray was like a dart to our exposed skin. And Stephen, still recovering from being sick, was already feeling terrible.
This hill might not have seemed so bad on a regular day, but in the sticky heat, it seemed like the steepest incline we’d ever encountered. To take my mind off the ride, I concentrated on the scent of the air around me. Thai air is as fragrant as you’d imagine it might be, and I inhaled again and again trying to figure out what that heavenly scent could be.
If I had to describe it, I’d say it smells like honey and vanilla stirred into warm milk.
I had drifted so far away in my scent-fuelled imagination, that I didn’t realise Stephen was nowhere to be seen behind me.
Which was excellent news, because it meant I could hop off my bike and walk with no one around to witness it.
Slowly, one plodding step at a time, arms and shoulders aching, sweat dripping into my eyes, I pushed my bike towards the top.
Spotting a rare patch of shade under a prickly tree, I decided to sit and wait for Stephen. When I saw him cresting the nearest rise, also pushing his bike instead of riding, I cheered him on, snapping his picture as he pushed.
He tells me he gave me the finger. He’s lucky I didn’t notice.
I went to join him for the last 100 m to my patch of shade. He was suffering some sharp knives in his belly, lightheadedness, and a deep need for a rest.
We sat in the shade until he’d recovered enough to say “it’s not getting any cooler”. Then we set off again, walking side by side up the last sweat-dripping bone-aching 500m of the incline.
Ruts And Dust And All Things Evil
A couple of Belgian cycle tourists we’d run into near Chiang Khong had told us that the last 30 km of our ride would be easy.
“There’s a little construction”, they’d said, but it wouldn’t be too bad.
We beg to differ. By the time we reached the construction zone, it was just another circle of hell. The road was torn up for a good 20 km, limiting our speed and our ability to gain any momentum. What would have been a fast flat section became a bone-jarring slog.
Huge dump trucks rumbled by at regular intervals, spewing up so much dust we couldn’t see each other through the haze.
Our sweaty bodies soon became caked in dirt, and the sweat ran down my shins in brown rivulets. The heat relentlessly pounded down. Then we came to the section that had been recently sprayed by water trucks. Dust gave way to mud.
We were not happy cyclists. No, not at all.
The Cutest Veggie Restaurant Of All Time
We’d read on WikiTravel that there was a small vegetarian restaurant in Chiang Saen, our destination for the night. Even though all I really felt like doing was lying under the fan in our cute guesthouse, we decided to walk the kilometre or two to the restaurant.
Our first attempt to find it failed, since we’d both neglected to bring the map. So after walking there and back and there again, we finally arrived.
There was a small house, in front of which were two dining tables, surrounded by a thick, black curtain of netting. It really didn’t look like a restaurant at all, and since no one seemed to be around, we were pretty sure it wasn’t open. As we poked our heads further inside, we discovered an elderly man fixing a blender motor, and, deeper inside the house, a woman washing dishes.
Stephen asked for the name of the restaurant, Lan Gae, and after trying a few pronunciations, we discovered we were indeed in the right place.
The man ushered us to one of the tables, and then called out to his wife. We didn’t know what would happen next, but we didn’t have to wait long to find out. Not two minutes later, they presented us with two huge plates of rice and a couple of bowls of steaming stews. One contained cabbage and a vegan chicken-like meat, while the other was a dark broth with green leafy vegetables and vegan not-beef.
We gobbled up every morsel and then asked for a second bowl of the beef stew, which they obligingly brought out to us. For dessert we were served a plate full of tiny bananas, along with huge smiles from both of the owners.
This was not exactly what I had in mind when I pictured our first real meal of Thai food, but it was delicious, and it was as close to being served a home-cooked meal as we’re likely to get in a long while. ♥
Want to see the route map? View the Lao part here and the Thai part here.