Saturday, January 24, 2009

Laos reflections, Sue's excellent pictures

It's been a few weeks since we got back from cycling in Laos, and I've had time to reflect on the amazing experience of riding in rural Laos. My mind keeps returning to the villages that we rode through each day. It's been a long, long time since I've traveled to such a different place, and it made a big impression on me. The language barrier was profound-- few folks that we met spoke more than a few words of English (and my attempts at Lao were laughable, literally causing natives to collapse in peels of laughter, in a friendly sort of way)-- but people were eager to interact and were generally extremely warm and friendly.

Sue captured more pictures of the villages and village people, so I've borrowed a few to share here. Thanks Sue!

Our first day riding in Laos took us through this market in Pak Beng.

Women seemed to be working all of the time. Carrying stuff...

Slicing and drying tarot root...

Working at tiny shops.

We saw young children helping with work-- preparing mattress stuffing here, as well as carrying water, cutting reeds with huge machetes, carrying younger siblings on their back, etc.

Cute kid in mountain village.

Kitchens were very basic (kitty!).

This is the kitchen for one of our guest houses. Our room was to the left of this. Roosters woke us up at 4 am.

Basic houses equipped with satellite dishes. All but the poorest villages seemed to have at least a few of these.

Shifting gears to the bike photos-- rain gear!

Me and Sue in the mountains.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Yes we can

Love the obamacon Mac. He looks very handsome!

Today, I responded to Obama's call for a national day of service and helped clean up a neighborhood mini-park. About 40 people showed up to pick up trash, clear an overgrown lot to make way for a community garden, and paint and otherwise spruce up the pedestrian footbridge over 101. I helped weed and clear brush from the vacant lot. It was kind of fun, except when I unearthed some syringes along the way.

It felt good to do some volunteer work. And it felt good to help clean up a neighborhood parklet, one I walk through every week or so in the summer. I do a moderate amount of cycling-related volunteering, mostly for the Low-Key Hillclimb series, but have been a bit remiss in my neighborhood/charitable volunteering since I started riding so much. I need to make time for more of this in the future.

I'm tired, time to nap. Then pick up Dan at the airport!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Thailand, Laos, Cambodia photos posted


warning, lots of them. Enjoy!

Monday, January 5, 2009

Angkor sunrise and farewell to Cambodia

It's our last day in Cambodia, and we fly out to Bangkok and then on to home a bit later today. It's been a good time in Siem Reap, despite Dan's tummy ailment and my cold, which started yesterday but is already mostly better.

I went out on my own on Sunday for a modest temple frenzy, traveling by tuk tuk, a moto pulling a two-seater carriage. I poked around at the Angkor Thom complex, spending a lot of time at Bayon then strolling around the other temples and structures in the area. After returning to Siem Reap to get Dan some lunch (poor thing hadn't left the room at all), I headed out to Angkor Wat for the late afternoon and sunset.

On Monday, Dan and I rented local bikes and did the minor circuit--a 16k loop comprising Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, Bayon and other temples. We did not get out to Bateay Srei (30k out), unfortunately, due to timing issues. Too bad!

The bikes were sturdy machines, single gear with fat tires and comfie seats. They did surprisingly well on the terrain, which included segments of unpaved road under repair as well as serious potholes and some off-roading when oncoming traffic swerved perilously close. We were waved through a road construction area near Angkor wat, and rode through piles of red dirt, gravel, sand, and partly groomed road, passing heavy construction equipment at close proximity.

It's been pretty amazing to walk all over the ruins. More detail on this later (need to pick up some gifts before I leave), but here are a couple of photos in the meantime.

A few of the many faces at Bayon, in the morning. I spent quite a lot of time here, looking at the faces from different angles and viewing the bas reliefs that cover the rear walls.

Self-portrait at Angkor wat. Dan finds these pictures silly, but I find them quite amusing!

Rental bike on the road to Angkor wat. Dan's bike looked nice, but was in serious need of a hub and/or chain overhaul. It's probably the only time that I've easily dropped Dan when we ride together.

Gate at Banteay Kdei. This temple was largely crumbling, and it was neat to explore the ruins and look at the trees and stuff growing all around the temple. It's just down the road from Ta Prohm, one of the heavy hitters, and had only a few other tourists in the ruins (in contrast to Ta Prohm which was mobbed). I enjoyed the solitude, though Dan made me a bit nervous when he was squeezing in and out of the ruins.

Big tree and Banteay Kdai. Ta Prohm also had many many spectacular trees growing in and around the ruins, but the pictures are mostly sideways and I can't figure out how to turn them!

Angkor wat sunrise. One of about 120 photos taken at the same angle at different shades of dawn. We got there at 5:30 am, and it was still dark. Luckily, Dan had his flashlight so we could navigate the bumpy pavement, steps and avoid falling into the moat! One guy was not so lucky and fell into the lotus pond! After sunrise, we looked around Angkor one last time, then returned to town to shop (me), get massaged (Dan), and pack up to depart. I am sorry to leave, but am looking forward to getting home to the kittens.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Easing into Angkor and more Laos photos

We said farewell to the group (and Sue) last night and flew out super early to Siem Reap, Cambodia, the gateway to Angkor Wat and oodles of other temples. Unfortunately, Dan has a touch of food poisoning, possibly from a smoothie, so he's napping in our hotel room right now :(. Sue also got the bug, more acutely, but was well enough to get on her flight to Bangkok this morning.

I've spent the day napping in our B&B (the Golden Banana, quite pleasant), and walking around and eating in Siem Reap, which is a major tourist destination and is thus bustling with American and European and Asian tourists. It's a little shocking after the relative sleepiness of the Laos tourist scene, where for much of the trip we were the only european/american tourists in town. But, there are a ton of french bakeries and ice cream places and I am enjoying eating flavorful food after a relatively monotonous diet in Laos (more on this later). It's feeling nice to just do nothing after 12 days of riding and touristing each day. Hopefully Dan will be up for a temple frenzy tomorrow!

As I have a good internet connection, here are a couple more shots from the second half of the trip.

Temple at the national museum in Luang Prabang. I didn't actually go in the temple, just stared weakly at it from the sidewalk as I was still quite feeble from food poisoning (Dan went in). Across from the temple is the Phousi hill, which had over 400 steps to the top and quite a nice view (and lots of buddhas and a giant buddha footprint in a cave). I managed to climb up to the top even in my impaired state. We were in Luang Prabang for about a day and half, our only rest day on the trip. Our two hardest days of riding were to follow.

The next two days were in higher mountains south of Luang Prabang and it was amazing epic riding. The first day featured two significant climbs-- 20 and 25 k long, with tremendous long descents in between the climbs. There were huge sweeping views, hard to capture in photos. Ripply green mountains as far as you could see. Quite often we were up on ridges and you could see huge segments of the road that you'd just climbed or the road to come! The road surface was pretty poor and there were fairly long unpaved, rocky, pot-holed segments in between paved sections. I made the most of the mountain bike by hammering right through these sections. Otherwise, I was riding pretty slowly, as I hadn't eaten much of anything for the two previous days. I was very proud of myself for making it through a hard day under the circumstances, but would have loved to do this section while feeling good.

We stayed the night in a mountain village, Kiu Kachan, at the top of one of our long climbs. This is the view from the "backyard" (ie, garden, farm, chicken yard, outdoor cooking facility) of the guest house when we awoke-- we were above the clouds and it was really cool.

The next day was also quite hard, featuring several shorter (but still long-- 8-10 mile) climbs and descents. I was even slower because I hadn't eaten much, had been up sick all night, and I was tired from the previous hard day. I was literally creeping up the hills in an embarassingly slow gear. As I rode slowly through a very hilly village, a group of kids started running along side me, laughing and shouting and obviously marveling at how slowly I was riding! I finally stopped and took their photo, then dropped them as the road leveled out. It was hilarious!

Fast forward a couple of days, and we were kayaking into Vang Vieng on New Year's eve. It's quite a tourist destination, tons of college-aged backpackers, and lots of bars overlooking the river, bars in town, etc. The town is in an incredible setting, ringed by mountains. Otherwise, nothing special, and we (Dan, Sue and me) horrified our British traveling companions by going to bed at 9 pm on New Year's eve. The rest of the group stayed up at least to midnight, some to 3 am! About half of the group was hungover for the next day's 60 mile hot ride.

Sunrise as seen from our guest house in Vang Vieng.

We spent the next night at a guest house overlooking a reservoir created by a massive dam and hydroelectric project, in Na Nam. The ride was pretty flat and we encountered increasingly heavy traffic until we turned off on a rural road which took us to the pictured reservoir and our guest house. We passed the dam and the hydroelectric facility, then had a steep hump of a climb to get up to the level of the reservoir. The view over the water was sweeping, but I couldn't help wondering how many villages were displaced to create the dam/reservoir, which is massive, over 40 k wide. The little bumps in the picture are islands (formerly hilltops), which used to hold penal colonies.

Our last day of riding was pretty flat, a straight shot into Vientiane. We stopped for lunch at a floating restaurant, where we tried fried locusts. Nothing much to the flavor-- tasted like grease and the lime/lemongrass seasoning in which it was cooked. The texture was crunchy, like soft shell crab. Here is Sue with a big one in her mouth. After lunch, the traffic steadily increased until we hit the hustle of the sprawling city. We had a farewell dinner with the group, and that was that for Vientiane.

Dan and our little plane this morning in Vientiane.

OK, must go see how Dan is doing. Wish him well!

Friday, January 2, 2009

Made it to Vientiane!

We rode into Vientiane today, Laos' capital city. Over 500 miles of riding, including the days in Thailand. I'm excited to be here, even though we'll be here just overnight, leaving early tomorrow morning for Siem Reap in Cambodia. I'm also glad to be ending the tour. I'm ready to be off the bike for a couple of days, on our own for a bit and staying in one place and looking at lots and lots of temples. I did enjoy the last two days of riding (about 60 miles each day) and rode with decent energy over the rolling terrain. I'll update this post with more details and photos tomorrow when I have a faster internet connection.