One recent morning ago, I discovered I am a water goddess. Or at least my name is attributed to one, according to Nick, the proprietor of our luxurious guesthouse in Muang La. Or at least something close to my name. Maybe.
And before I forget — a shout out to all you “mad islanders” as Kate suggested I put forth, for joining us via the World Wide Internets on this crazy bike tour 🙂 Thanks for reading, I hope to hear from you!!
Back to Muang La where we took a sojourn from Laotian food and feasted on banana pancakes, omelets and smooth Phongsaly red tea! We enjoyed an extended breakfast for two reasons: we’re so on vacation and everything food-related in Laos takes FOREVER.
Around noon, we’re off like a dirty, sweaty shirt. First stop: the sketchy looking cable bridge across the river from one side of town to the other. Under the highly amused eyes of locals, we lifted our bikes over the scooter barriers on one side, rode across the rickety bridge and lifted them up again on the other side.
Afterwards, the route was largely rolling, a blessing to our tired legs. I took up the caboose, my legs moving as fast as a half-dried up slug. Lunchtime arrived and we stopped at a tiny stand in a tinier village for grilled and fried bananas and some innocuous-looking meat on a stick (satay). We later dubbed the grilled sticks “bubble meat” due to the fact that you bit into it and then chewed it… and chewed it… and chewed it…and chewed it.
But it was a beautiful journey along another muddy river lined with longboats and the countless, tiny stilted villages we passed, one after the other, separated by the thick, green jungle.
We stopped at the halfway point in Poc Nam Noi to check out the one known guesthouse at the dilapidated train station. As we read in Lonely Planet, a plethora of mostly recognizable but unappetizing food options awaited us in pre-wrapped packages: mysterious small fish, dried maggots and boiled quail eggs, among others. The rooms caddy corner from a pile of what may have been frog legs were just as unappetizing, with cockroaches scurrying around and gaps between walls where whole armies of mosquitos could organize their ranks.
We pressed on another 30 km or so to the larger town of Muang La, still a blip on the Laotian radar. Dark approached, then began to cast its cool cloak about us as we rolled in, greatly anticipating parking our bikes, taking showers and drinking beer on our sweet, patio-facing balconies. Oh, and eating a whole lot of inexpensive food.
Of course, it wasn’t quite that easy. We managed the arrival place all right, thanks to a kind stranger with perfect English who disappeared shortly after disseminating the location of our luxurious guesthouse by the river to Lisa. Then Nick, the very nice young man behind the front desk, drew us a well-intentioned map that got us to the buggy, humid heart of nowhere. Tyler and I got beta from our friends Cindy and Dave on a previous bike tour to Vietnam that Southeast Asians are notoriously bad with directions; they even point differently, with their whole hand instead of the pointer finger (pointing is rude) so it becomes even more difficult to tell which direction their scooped palm indicates.
Therefore, we enjoyed a long, hungry wander on dark dirt roads, eventually in a confusing circle. Just as we were about to give up, a shooting star blazed across the night sky like somebody tossed a lit candle above our heads. Wonderment erased all our despair. But it came back. Just as we were about to throw in the hunger towel again, we stumbled upon the very, very dim lights of a restaurant. We wandered, drunk with hunger, across a woven bridge that moved eerily as we crossed the gap between earth and stilted restaurant.
There, underneath the paltry beams of a green lantern plastered with dead bug carcasses, we attempted to decipher a menu replete with curling Laotian writing and some of the best English translations I’ve witnessed in my 33 years. Some of the better menu items: car chilled cucumber Poetry, touching sea, bouncing meat, police beans and Police Soup soon bear. WHAT?!?!
After we stopped laughing hard enough to squirt dehydrated pee on our plastic chairs, the waitress came over. We bumbled through ordering sautéed vegetables and about 1,000 kilos of fried rice — or so we thought.
After an extraordinary amount of time, even for Laos, our food began to trickle onto the buggy table (in Laos, food arrives as ready, not all at once). The rations were as follows: one plate of fried rice which disappeared so fast it may not have even been present, two plates of friend vegetables half the group found delicious and the other half found entirely too spicy — especially Anne, who accidentally swallowed a volcano-hot Thai pepper and spent a large chunk of the meal sucking on ice cubes, wincing and involuntarily drooling.
Then, there were two mystery plates of fried fish — the entire fish, having come straight from a body of water to the fryer, cut into large chunks afterwards and brought to our table. After Anne recovered from chili overload, she set to work cleaning up the fish, crunching fins and bones like potato chips. She tossed the bones to the ever-present stray dog under the table, which began another potato chip orchestra at our feet.
Afterwards, we returned still hungry but so tired we didn’t care. The Supermoon — the brightest in 68 years — watched us stumble home on the uneven streets, mosey on into our rooms, shut the doors and pass out.
The next morning (when I learned of my water goddess status), we did not get an early start but the sun beat furiously upon us already. Kate and Anne made a trip to a nearby market for breakfast (small, sweet bananas with orange cores, satay that wasn’t bubblemeat (although now all meat on a stick is referred to as “bubblemeat”), sticky rice and a mysterious cooked green plant wrapped in banana leaves. We ate it, with instant coffee, on the sunny back porch.
Nick told us the temps were hotter than usual; it would be independently verified by the droplets cruising down various locales on our bodies throughout this long, toasty day. We stopped for a hefty plastic bag of sticky rice, or what we’ve started to refer to as Laotian bread. It’s bland but plentiful and carb heavy (aka great for biker people).
Then the open, gently rolling and very, very sweaty. Not too far up the road, we stopped along lush pastures to check out some water buffalo having a soak in a big ol’ pile of mud. Turns out they were just as curious about us:The humidity and the intense sunshine held hands and turned what may have been a moderately easy day into one that sapped our strength like those creepy black spirit things in Harry Potter. We stopped at one of the numerous roadside fountains where village folk routinely shower in their underwear or wash babies in buckets. We just soaked ourselves and our shirts before pressing on.
When we arrived in Oudamxai, we set about shopping for a guesthouse; there were so many, we could’ve tripped and fell, sweaty and stinky into one, much to the owner’s dismay. After checking out half a dozen and discussing amongst ourselves (minus Tyler whose personality and vitality were slowly being destroyed by a lethal combination of nausea and peeing out the butt). We settled on a quiet guesthouse on a side street which came with a floppy-eared, happy puppy.
After dragging everything up to our room, Lisa and I went on an extensive laundry mission, only to find out much later there was another laundry service within mango-throwing distance. However, our excursion did give us a chance to appease our ever-present hunger with pineapple smoothies and a shared plate of boiled eggs, pork with broth, rice and a sautéed leafy green I have fallen in love with and seen translated as morning glory.
The rest of the afternoon was mild in terms of activity and heavy on eating — kind of like the rest day to follow, but we’ll save that for next time…