Triplogue - Laos II

26 June, Pakxan/Nam Thone to Tha Khek, 101km (f)

Sometime even before the sky turned from black to gray I awoke to the sound of the wind hissing through the screen, the windows bouncing against their frames and the rain pounding the metal roof of our little guest house. A short while later the alarm clock interrupted my half-sleep and I opened my eyes to find the sky only marginally lighter and the rain falling more heavily. We mutually agreed that this might not be the best time to depart and decided to take advantage of the rain and make a later start. Before settling in for a few hours of sleep I shuffled off to the bathroom only to find the studly laborer of the day before staring out the window looking at the severe storm and dreading his day digging in the rain. "It looks like a hurricane," I said to him, even though I doubted his command of English.

He wanted to show me something out the front of the guesthouse and beckoned me to follow. The rain had reduced washed away most of the dirt they’d shoveled the day before and torrents of brown water the color of the Mekong were washing along the road. He closed the huge sliding steel doors of the hotel and I began to walk back towards our room when he stopped me and tentatively pet my back and said, "you are lovely." Still half asleep and not feeling especially lovely nor articulate I patted him on the back and said something ridiculous like "you are cute as well," before politely excusing myself and tumbling back into bed.

A few hours later we were packing our bags, watching the rain and wondering how we’d manage riding in it. One option we considered was finding a bus and another was to stay another day in the little guesthouse. Just after we asked the owner of the hotel about a bus she was pounding on door telling us the bus was there and we’d better hurry. In the rain we loaded our bikes onto the VIP bus and waved goodbye to the family. The laborer was waving frenetically and I nearly forgot that he was standing with his family when composing my goodbye. There was little time to consider anything including a goodbye because before I knew it we were on the bus and headed down the road.

As we bumped along the vacant highway the bus’ air conditioning pumped frigid air onto us. I shivered as the once warm rainwater dried in the cool breeze. Huge drops of condensation formed on the air ducts above us and dropped onto us each time we hit a bump. I moved to the front of the bus, where the air conditioner did not function, and watched the driver navigate through my half-opened eyes. Slipping in and out of sleep I observed the now rolling hills and forest lumber by.

Our driver was in no particular hurry; thankfully that was the temperament of most of the drivers for there were many obstacles on the road. The surface of the road itself was dreamy. Constructed recently by the Swedes it sported silky-smooth bitumen with a wide shoulder and enormous drainage ditches on either side to whisk away the water. Other competition for the road came in the form of pigs, cows, water buffalo, tractors, children and dogs, all wandering on the two lanes as though traffic never passed --and little did. Despite his care our driver was unable to miss an unfortunate pig that bolted in front of the bus and met its end with a disconcerting thump as it rolled under the wheels of the bus. "They’ll be having larb (a Laotian pork salad) for dinner in that village," I thought to myself, cringing at the image of the blood-splattered highway.

The clouds remained but the rain stopped as we arrived at a crossroads. There the bus stopped to take on new passengers while the driver inspected the bus for pig-damage. Though we’d paid to take the bus to Tha Khek we disembarked with our bikes and bags and began to load them to complete the ride in true BikeBrats fashion, on our bikes. The driver and crew (there were two other bus personnel on board, a luggage handler and ticket taker, though there were only twenty seats on the bus) looked dismayed and a little confused by our departure. They and the other passengers waved to us as they passed seemingly wondering how we could be so wasteful of our money.

Though there was only intermittent sun it felt hot. The rainwater-soaked ground gave up its moisture into the air. I swooned in the sauna-like weather conditions. If I’d thought yesterday’s ride was peaceful, what was this one? There were far fewer cars and villages and jungle seemed to encroach on the road. When we did pass through a village curious eyes followed our path down the road from inside rattan shacks and the voices of young children rang out chirping sabai dii. It was a classic 3H day (hills, heat, humidity) that left my brain dull and my legs achy. After yesterday’s 150km+ day I was feeling a little beat. Andy was as well, perhaps more than me, for he wanted to have a day of rest in Tha Khek the next day.

When we arrived at our hotel I wasn’t really very impressed. It was a massive four-story affair constructed of cement facing the Mekong. The architect seemed to have forgotten that the river might be picturesque and avoided putting windows facing the Mekong so one might look out upon its brown waters and across to Thailand. The cave-like confines of our room hardly seemed appropriate for a day of relaxation and writing. The only window was a little hole looking out on the backyard where a neighbor burned trash incessantly. The bathroom was another horror story. Most of the little inch-square floor tiles were loose or completely dislodged and toilet seat sported some sort of deposit of unknown origin and composition resembling something extracted from the La Brea tar pits. Another amenity, the water heater, though a prominent feature of the bathroom, did not function. When I called this to the attention of the not-so-friendly desk staff they said, "the owner has no money, so no work."

Adding to the ambiance of the hotel were the other guests we met at the restaurant. An antipodean couple, a girl from New Zealand and a guy from Australia. They were eating as I arrived and Andy checked us into our room. I greeted them cheerfully as I arrived, "hi!" No response was forthcoming. A little later they volunteered that they had no idea why they were here in Tha Khek and it seemed that they were having a miserable time on what might have been a vacation. They left the restaurant shortly after we arrived, thankfully, but not before creating a horrible scene. The staff had forgotten to raise the prices on the English language menu and tried to charge them the new prices for food. They were demanding 3000 kip from the couple instead of 2500 as indicated on the menu, a difference of around fifteen cents. Rather than pay the whole amount they shouted at the waiter threw their money to him and stormed out of the place, grumbling about having been charged the "white-faced" price. Good fortune smiled upon us, we weren’t to meet them again during our stay in Tha Khek.

If we were to stay an extra day in Tha Khek I was resolute in the idea that it be in a different place. Down the street was another hotel housed in an old police station. We stopped by and found that it was a full service hotel offering comfort girls who displayed themselves prominently around the lobby. At dinner in a restaurant that resembled a refrigerator both in its gleaming whiteness and temperature I convinced Andy that we should try to ride the next day rather than soak up the ambience in Tha Khek. In the morning we’d look at the weather, see how we felt and perhaps go on to Savannahkhet to meet Ly, Caroline and her family.

Rainy season roof repairs


Drive-Thru tuk-tuk wash


Limestone lumps near Tha Khek

Workin' on the Lao superhighway


"Chance" meeting with Sak


Savannahkhet's answer to Paris' Eiffel Tower, the giant soyabean

27 June, Tha Khek to Savannakhet, 139km (a)

The sweet sweet music of pounding rain greeted my ears this morning. I could sleep in, have a day off the bike. My last dream of the morning concerned Fred’s dissatisfaction with our lodgings; in my reverie I convinced him that it wasn’t such a bad place to stay after all, and it was only one more night... Suddenly, I was being shaken awake. "I think it’s letting up. Do you want to ride?" --came the unwelcome voice of my overanxious riding partner. What I thought was an unambiguous "NO" didn’t convince him however, and soon he’d coaxed me out of bed and through the rain to a sleazy little breakfast joint/grocery store on Tha Khek’s dilapidated fountain square, built by the French some eighty years ago, and mostly neglected ever since.

Two falangs and their Lao colleagues were seated at a table next to us. They turned out to be Americans, working for an NGO out of Vietnam, something to do with bio-diversity. Some sort of conference was going on all weekend, explaining the buildup of sports utility vehicles in our hotel’s parking lot. One of the Americans had met Kim, the Danish cyclist, in Northern Laos, thus confirming our suspicions that Laos can get very small very fast.

While I munched on my baguette stuffed with fried eggs ("Lao McMuffin") Fred continued to work me, trying to persuade me to ride.

"It’s still raining, Fred," I said.
"Yeah, but I think it’s letting up."
"Why are you so keen on getting to Savannakhet anyway?"
"I don’t like it here."
"Well, I’ve got news for you. Savannakhet probably looks a lot like this." I made a sweeping gesture towards the trash-strewn plaza. I hated to disappoint him, but for some reason Fred has developed an "end of the rainbow" kind of mentality, in which the next, as yet unseen, destination is always more appealing than the present one. Was he expecting Savannakhet to look like Zurich?

Despite my whining, Fred did manage to get me onto my bike and pedal out of town under bleakly drizzling skies. Within five minutes we were covered in mud, picking our way out of town down a road resembling a minefield. Things improved a little when we got back to Highway 13, but my energy was severely wanting. The kilometers seemed to be clicking off especially slowly today, dampened by the drizzle and a persistent headwind. Would I be able to make it the 140 kilometers to Savannakhet, or would we have to flag down a bus at some point? I hated feeling so weak…

The route became fairly hilly and the jungle closed in. The only villages we saw were extremely primitive, just haphazard collections of tumbledown huts. No place seemed to have electricity. At a seven-eleven stop, we watched the shopkeeper dig a deeper hole for his precious chunk of ice. He seemed perplexed when we turned down his offer of a gritty chunk of the stuff. And then there were the kids, the filthiest little creatures we’ve seen anywhere, usually naked from the waist down, their bodies and t-shirts positively encrusted. Instead of the friendly "sabai-di’s" we’ve grown accustomed to hearing, here we were greeted with the less welcoming "falang." We promised ourselves we’d learn the Lao term for "peasant" as a rejoinder.

Ponies started to appear, the first we’d seen in Laos. Some grazed by the roadside while others pulled cartloads of people or goods. All of them, like their bovine and human counterparts, were painfully scrawny.

A huge commotion was going on in one village we passed through. A pig being slaughtered was apparently far more interesting to the local kids than two falang cyclists. I stopped to take a picture, and when I came back across the road Fred was amiably chatting with someone in a white pickup truck. It was Ly’s brother, Sak, on his way to Vientiane with a part for a friend’s car. He told us it was another hundred kilometers to Savannakhet, and that the road was anything but flat. "You guys sure are brave to do this on bikes," he commented with a disbelieving shake of his head before speeding off.

After another hour or so of demoralizing riding, we reached a crest and realized how much we had climbed. In front of us the road dropped into a broad valley, and from here on in the riding was much better. Our morale and energy returned, and Savannakhet no longer seemed an unattainable goal.

Our refreshment stops were numerous, from a sullen place in the highlands to a friendly noodle shop/gambling den in a lively highway strip, run by the village sissy. His black-and-red striped outfit matched his streaked hair and heavily made-up face. We ate his excellent pho as we watched the travelling broom salesman come through town in his heavily-laden truck. Nearly every household bought at least one. From the sorry look of the broom-nub formerly employed by our host(ess), it had been quite a while since the broom man had last passed through these parts.

From our last refreshment stop –a decidedly unfriendly place where we drank up most of their supplies—it was still over forty kilometers to our goal. But either the wind changed, the road continued to descend, or we found untapped energy reserves. We cranked all the way into town. Rustic rattan hovels gave way to more prosperous-looking wooden homes, and the occasional car (often a Mercedes) graced the road. People rode alongside us on their motorcycles, wanting to practice their few phrases of English. A little further on and we were in the heart of Savannakhet’s industrial corridor. I realized I was wrong in assuming that all of Laos’ industry was concentrated on the road between Vientiane and Nong Khai (where one finds the nation’s brewery and the only soft drink bottling plant in the land). Indeed, Savannakhet looks more happening than the capital in many ways. Lots of new buildings going up, signs announcing joint ventures with Korea, Thailand, Vietnam and China.

Finding the town’s relatively abandoned center proved a little difficult, but after only a few wrong turns we were pedaling through the crumbling remnants of French colonial glory. Like almost every other town we’ve seen in Laos, Savannakhet seems to be frozen in time, though not at any specific era. At the pretentiously-named Auberge du Paradis (where Ly had recommended we stay) a guy leaned out the window from upstairs, a falang, telling us the place was fully booked. He was part of a Danish team building the road south to Pakse, and they had taken over the whole hotel.

So we made the rounds, systematically visiting each of Savan’s premier lodging establishments. The best deal by far seemed to be the Nanhai Hotel, owned and operated by Chinese. Rather than committing right away, we continued on to the decidedly less fabulous Phonepaseuth, where a brash young girl –sexy in a plump sort of way—surprised us by speaking perfect American English. She said her name was Tina and that she’d spent four years in Maryland. Did she know our friends Ly and Caroline from France? We thought this might be the swimming pool they come to every day… "Oh, you mean the ones with red hair who come on bicycles every day? They’re at the pool now, right across the street."

After commenting on our dirt-encrusted, malodorous states, les soeurs Phouthavy accompanied us back to the Chinese place and then on to their ancestral home –down an abysmally surfaced road. After brief introductions to their mom –whom I haven’t seen in eight years—and their frail, toothless octogenarian grandfather, we made our way by foot to what we instantly came to call "Les Champs Elysees" of Savannakhet –a scruffy boulevard with former pretentions of grandeur. Fred and I gulped down noodles with vegetables and juice freshly squeezed by a Spice Girl lookalike. ("Lao Spice" we call her, and she has since become a local landmark for us).

Since it was Saturday night, we felt obliged to get a glimpse of Savannakhet’s fabled nightlife. And the girls reluctantly accompanied us to the Lucky Bar, where everyone was watching television when we entered. But as soon as they saw us, the tv was switched off and the band struck up, playing syrupy Lao-Viet pop. Seated around us in the dark were tables and tables full of bar girls, who would no doubt have hassled us if Ly and Caroline weren’t accompanying us. The next place we visited was a little more happening, but by then it was nearing eleven p.m. (bars close here at 11:30) and all four of us felt ready for bed.

27 June-6July, Savannakhet (f)

Trying to sum-up our stay in Savannakhet is no easy affair. How would you describe an utterly relaxing few days with no touristic value whatsoever? It was sort of like coming home to your hometown but never having been there before. I’d compare it to living on the television set of Mayberry RFD, the sixties television show featuring Andy Williams and the then youthful Ron Howard were it filmed and conceived in Asia. Part of it was the ease with which Ly and Caroline’s family adopted us. Aunt Bee (Madame Phouthavy), the girls’ mom, doted upon us, fed us and welcomed our presence at every meal.

For us it was the first home-stay like experience we’d had for sometime and it was vastly appreciated. For them, I am not sure. Perhaps it was a little diversion from the trials of being back in Laos for an extended period of time. Madame Phouthav’s mother (the girls’ grandmother) had died recently and they’d come back for the internment and to take care of their ninety-ish grandfather. He was scarcely able to take care of himself and they were preparing to usher him back to France with them when they ran into yards of French red-tape.

Our days were largely spent puttering around the provincial capital, eating, shopping and answering the seemingly unending calls of s’bai dii from the town’s children. Another time-sink was eating ice cream at the well-stocked Chinese 7-11 and marveling at the vast array of goods there.

The town itself is charming and in the midst of some sort of a transition. It sits on the Mekong across from a medium-sized Thai town that would like to be the gateway to Vietnam. The Thais have gone so far as to propose yet another bridge across the Mekong and the improvement of the road that leaves from Savannahkhet to Lao Bao in Vietnam. The center of Savannakhet is sleepy commercially (so the locals say) due to the relocation of the market to the outskirts of town. One wonders if it was ever bustling. Decaying buildings of colonial design line the potholed streets of the center.

One is the Phouthavy ancestral home. A standard Asian affair with a large covered terrace on the street, with shop quarters in front and large living area in back and upstairs. The Phoutavies moved here after Ly’s grandfather mistakenly donated their older and more luxurious house to the Vietnamese Club of the town. He did so after securing passage for his family to France, only to have second thoughts, and found that he could not reclaim their former home from the Vietnamese. Sadly, the well-placed stately old home houses a shabby little bar across from the club. The newer house gave the BikeBrats a peek at Asian life. Still, even after a few days of hanging out, I still don’t understand the concept of Asian public, private and commercial space as the Phouthavy lifestyle is partially polluted by their long stay in Europe.

We had reason to visit the cause of the slowdown of central Savannahkhet, the new market. There we were looking for t-shirts to replace the worn ones of our current wardrobe. The gleaming new four-story building has many vacancies on the first floor and the others have yet to open. The new market sports (perhaps the only) escalators that have yet to be put into service therefore use of the upper floors is impossible.

Ly’s brother Sak helped us seek repairs for my ailing rear wheel. I’d broken two spokes and damaged three others when my rear derailleur malfunctioned and over-shifted. Finding new ones to replace the now defective ones was proving to be difficult. The friend of Sak had all the tools and parts necessary and quickly replaced the spokes and trued the wheel. He even rotated the tires on both bikes and adjusted our brakes, spending some two hours of his time. Afterwards he would only charge 2000 kip for his services (less than sixty cents). I tried to overpay by double and he wouldn’t hear of it. He was just happy to help two guys who had taken the time to see his country by bike. I couldn’t let his generosity pass so we finally figured that he needed a special tool and promised to send it to him when we return to the States. I was relieved we’d solved one of my worries upon entering Laos. One problem still remains: the two itchy but benign (I hope) lumps on my right eyelid.

The Phouthavy extended family includes a man named Ti Noy (who we immediately nick-named Nit-Noy after the Thai television character he resembles). Ti Noy took care of their grandparents while they were away in France and has been helping look after their granddad since the departure of their grandmother. He is quick to smile and has an affable and happy demeanor. He treated us to an evening at the local nightclub/hooker bar where he sang a Vietnamese number with the band. The place was packed and the dance floor filled with each number. One dance was an elaborate line dance that was performed by the working girls of the crowd and a very drunken patron. Andy and I wondered how he managed to perform the intricate steps when he could scarcely walk across the bar or sit in a chair. He almost came to blows with the staff when asked to leave. We all feared his potential rage especially since he donned an army uniform and handcuffs, and I hoped he didn’t have a revolver tucked somewhere underneath his clothes.

There was an especially funny bookendish pair of waiters (or was it waitresses) at the bar. Both sported black pants, starched white shirts, spit-shined shoes, black vests, black bow ties and shortish haircuts. One was extremely masculine, lumbering through the bar carrying hugely loaded trays to awaiting customers. The other twin was dainty, took small steps, wrists fluttering in the breeze, head tossed from side-to-side and hips swayed luxuriously while walking. They had utter disregard for their respective genders; the mannish one was a girl and the queen was, of course, a queen. Ti Noy was the M.C. at our table and he filled our glasses with beer each time we sipped from them, rendering us unconscious of how much we were drinking. One fortunate thing is that the bars always close at 11:30 in Laos, so we managed to walk home relatively sober despite Ti Noy’s earnest efforts.

What was to be our last day in S-khet was also the departure date for Ly and her brother Sak. Though we’d planned to have breakfast with them before they left Andy awoke feeling very badly and we stayed at the hotel in order to nurse him back to health. We managed to walk across town to the Phouthavy residence just before lunch trying not to fall into one of the cavernous potholes the spot the route from our hotel to their house. The rain from the last days had filled each with Mekong colored water and we dashed along the avenue dodging trucks, motorcycles, tuk-tuks, bicycles and cars that threatened to splash us with the muddy mess. The Phouthavies tried to help Andy by rubbing scented oil into his achy back to no avail. Despite Andy’s condition we went off to the dock to see Sak and Ly off to Thailand to begin their epic journey home. Ly seemed sad to leave her mom, sister, grandfather and homeland behind. I felt a little sad and empty seeing them board the long tail boat and motor across the Mekong.

Later I dropped by to say goodbye to Madame Phouthavy, Caroline and Granddad with some flowers for the shrine to their grandmother and some antibiotics for Caroline’s ailing stomach. As we embraced and kissed goodbye I again became heavy-hearted and wondered when we’d have such hospitality and good times again. With Andy not feeling well it might very well be the next day.

Laos or the south of France? Petanques in Savannakhet


Madame Phouthavy honors her mother

Bruce and Eric, honorary brats


Savannakhet's ex-pat crowd shown here with their favorite beverage

Savannahkhet Postscript

At about eight in the evening Andy’s fever peaked and he lay in his bed at our Chinese hotel. Tinoy managed to find a doctor who’d make a hotel call and the two arrived at our elegant suite to assess Andy’s condition. The Vietnamese doctor diagnosed the malady as the flu and insisted on giving him some intravenous vitamins --much to Andy’s (needle-hating) chagrin. He moaned and perspired all night and insisted that we find a new hotel the next day. Andy wanted a hot bath to sooth his aching bones.

We found the office of Andy’s doctor, who reaffirmed his diagnosis of the flu via a blood test that eliminated malaria and dengue fever as possibilities. More vitamins were administered and he was sent away to rest. I made an appointment to have my eyelid lanced that afternoon. Andy’s flu left us pinned down in charming and Mayberry-like S-khet another three days. Slow and muddy might better describe the town, for I began to get bored of our stay here. Through his suffering Andy kept apologizing for being sick and keeping us here which only made me feel more guilty about being bored. One day while riding around running errands I met another cyclist. I’d stopped at an Asian 7-11 for an ice cream for Andy when we saw each other.

Jo had been a VSO (Volunteer Service Organization of Britain) employee in Indonesia for the past two years and was now taking some time to see more of the region by bike. It was hard to peg her actual nationality from her accent. Born in England, lived in Germany, the USA and Indonesia. She had cycled (and bussed) the past few days from Pakse on what is supposed to be one of the most miserable roads in Laos, alone. She told me of her days in the driving rain, soaked to the bone and wondering why she was riding at all. After one especially grimy and muddy day she arrived at a guesthouse and the owner just handed her the garden hose without saying a word, leaving her to rinse the muck off of herself and her bike.

She was having trouble with her gears and we spent an afternoon together working on them, lunching and exchanging travel stories. It was through her that I was introduced into the cyling segment S-khet NGO ex-pat crowd. She mentioned that some people she’d met went on a bike ride each Sunday. At the time I dismissed the idea summarily. Andy and I would surely be on the road by then. I’d underestimated the severity of his influenza.

Come Saturday we realized a weekend departure was impossible. Andy was still too weak to ride and no busses would be departing until Monday. I called Eric, the friend of the friend of Jo, and introduced myself. They were planning to ride on Sunday and had a fourth of July celebration on the calendar for that evening. We were invited to both if we wanted. Andy was just beginning to feel better and he’d join us for dinner. Before the festivities I went over to help them try to fix yet another set of bicycle gears and Andy hung out with Caroline at our hotel for another backgammon lesson. The dinner consisted of a relatively tough little steak and some overdone French fries but the company was good even if we forgot to toast the Stars and Stripes that night.

The alarm rang the next day at a frightfully early hour; I’d become accustomed to sleeping until seven. Five-thirty seemed inhuman. Somehow I choked down a yogurt, crackers and water, mounted my bike and was on my way to meet the other riders. At Eric’s we joined Bas (short for Sebastian), Bruce and Margaret all on their mountain bikes and ready to go. Bas is Dutch, from Utrecht, was riding the hobbled bike I failed to repair the day before. Bruce and Margaret, in their (this is an estimate) fifties, from New Zealand were almost a little too cheery for the early hour; however their mirth was somewhat inspiring. Sleepy S-khet was even more so on a lazy Sunday after a night of World Cup Soccer. Bas was dragging a little low in the saddle from a late night watching the Dutch play.

I was a little worried for they warned me that there’d be more than a little loose sand and gravel on the ride and my steed was clearly not configured for that type of ride. True to their warning, within just a few kilometers of our start we were sloshing through mud and riding along a sandy dike precariously perched over picturesque rice fields. I felt like I might lose traction at any moment and plunge a few meters headfirst into a mucky patch but Siegfried was stable and sure through even the most difficult terrain. As we traversed bans villagers looked on with a little surprise, unlike those we’d passed on the road. I could only surmise that they had seen this crew cycling through the woods before and were beyond shock and amazement --or it was just too early in the morning and they considered it a hallucination or dream?

Our first break had us resting at a very rural wat that featured an ancient stupa and some sculpture. Eric commented that he was unsure where the locals had found inspiration for the carved stone lion, as there are none in Laos or anywhere nearby. The stupa itself was enclosed behind a low stone wall that had recently been adorned by light poles. Those who had added the lighting had taken no consideration of the site when attaching blue PVC tubing to the cement in order to house the wires for the lights. Adding an extra unsightly touch the tubing was attached to the railing using big chrome bands. Margaret and Bruce took on a parental role at this stop, passing out snacks and encouragement, citing that Eric invariably "bonks" after about twenty kilometers if they don’t feed him.

We forded another two or three more mucky channels and set off through the forest to ride around a swampy lake. I was feeling great; it was the first time being on a bike in nearly a week. Better still I was unburdened and unhassled by any traffic except the occasional water buffalo, cow, or mystified villager. I lost focus while zipping along the sandy path through the dense forest, hit a loose bit of sand, slid sideways and dumped my bike in the bushes. No harm at all, dusted myself off and hit the trail again. We had to stop periodically to hoist our bikes over tumbled trees blocking our path before winding around the lake and finally rejoining the road south back to S-khet. It made me feel strong to have the pavement tumble beneath my wheels as we raced against the wind back to town. Bas and I pumped as hard as we could down a hill and up the other side leaving the others behind. Bas, though feeling a little out of shape at the moment, would ride road races back in Holland and boasted of completing one race that took him 270 kilometers in one day. It was clear that he had strong legs as he kept pace with me on a mountain bike with bad gears.

We only rode some five kilometers on Highway 13 before turning off towards the Mekong on a still sandier track. We stopped for another rest at a village that sported an image of a standing buddha some five meters tall. Eric remarked that it was obviously from the ‘70’s, the 1970’s" he further clarified. "It looks distinctly like John Travolta in ‘Saturday Night Fever’" he added. Just a few moments later we pulled into the compound and gardens of Bruce and Margaret’s home on the Mekong. Eric had goaded the two to host us for coffee at their house after the ride, adding to the parental ambience of the morning. Their huge and sweeping lawn reached to the shore of the muddy rain-swollen waters of the mighty river. Upon arrival it took me ten minutes to hose off my bike and myself I was so encrusted with dirt.

Eric left us early to attend a marriage of a friend (and I think, ex). Bruce joked with him that "he’d let another good one slip by" and that he was simply "not a closer." This was one of the subplots of the morning; it seems that Eric has tired of his "own cooking" and is seeking some companionship of the female persuasion. After Eric left, Margaret trotted out all of her imported delicacies and told us how dear the peanut butter was, "so use it sparingly!" I went directly for the bread and tamarind jam first before smearing a fresh and crusty French roll with chunky style and a banana for good measure. I tore myself away from the table and excused myself before eating them out of house and home.

Later that afternoon Caroline poked her head in at the inn to see how Andy was doing, only this time she could only stand at the door and peek into the room. It seemed that yesterday’s backgammon lesson "alone with a white guy in a hotel room" had inspired more than just a few rumors about her morals amongst the Savannahkhetans. We socialized on the patio of our room under the watchful eyes of the hotel personnel before going back to Bruce and Margaret Jefferies for a sunset upon the Mekong. Again more delicacies showed up at our table as the partly cloudy skies changed from silver to gold and then rose. Margaret pulled out her homemade chicken liver paté, imported crackers, snacks and roasted peanuts while Bruce pulled imported beer from their Cadillac sized turquoise-colored refrigerator.

Before the sky turned dark Caroline had to excuse herself; her mother insisted on her being home before dark to protect her recently sullied reputation. In advance of her departure she’d caught the attention of Eric, who was still stung by his loss of his ex. Andy hit his energy wall and also excused himself, leaving me to try to keep up with Bruce and Eric consuming mass quantities of beer.

In reviewing our dinner possibilities I realized that we had a pretty good understanding of S-khet. I knew all of the restaurants they mentioned and there was only one I hadn’t been to. One that was vetoed as a possibility Andy and I had eaten at before. Its host had been a lounge singer in Paris during the 70’s. On every wall were photos of him in various cliché poses in front of monuments there. Then, like now, he sported a big head of well blow-dried black hair that made him look like an Asian version of the King himself. Eric and the others called his place Elvis’ in honor of the resemblance and we knew exactly where he was talking about on only the mention of the nick-name.

Tonight, at around midnight, we’ll get on a well-worn bus and make the bumpy journey to Vietnam (I hope). Andy still doesn’t have the energy to ride and we are dreadfully behind schedule to make our meeting with my friend Wendy in Hanoi. Strangely I think I’ll miss my so-called life here in S-khet. The kids have tired of yelling falang at me as I pass by on my bike or on foot to the point I almost feel anonymous. One last anecdote before I close out our writings on this the second largest town in Laos.

People don’t walk in Savannahkhet. If I walk down the street everyone stops and stares in disbelief. Why would a rich white person not ride in a shiny new Land Cruiser or motorbike? At least a bicycle? I realized where I stand on the social ladder when walking a few days ago. The only other person a pied was walking his water buffalo through town.

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