I guess it had to happen, and it was partly my own fault, but I HATED my riding today. I wasn’t feeling so well this morning, and lingered far too long over the amazing French hotel breakfast, chatting with a delightful Swedish couple my age who had loved their time in Luang Prabang so we compared highlights, and I introduced them to Grandpa Bear who happened to be in my bag. (They were flying today for a few nights in Bangkok before heading home, and as my day turned out, I now wonder if perhaps their way of travel is the sensible one?) So the heat of the day was developing when I finally left the hotel to navigate my way back through the dust and traffic.
The first 20km are familiar, as I am back tracking the main Highway 13 road south along which I came from the mountains 6 days ago now. Its 11.30am and perhaps 30C by the time I reach the turn-off. I stop at a tiny roadside café for a drink and some salty crisps in an attempt to keep up my energy levels – I’m already flagging. I’ve checked today’s route on the terrain version of Google Maps and it appears to show the road meandering along a river valley. However, what I didn’t see from the level of detail was that the road resembles a switchback ride, cycling up one hill brings one a view of another hill in the distance and so on – it’s a nightmare and my leg muscles just aren’t up to it!
By shortly after noon, I still have 39km to go, but know I must stop and wait out the worst heat of the day. I find a deserted house, and rest for an hour in the shade of the verandah, drinking a litre of my precious water supply and eating a small packet of biscuits. After an enjoyable hour with my kindle, entertaining myself with another of Colin Cotterill’s charming detective novels set in Laos, I head off. By 3pm I am walking up every hill. My legs hurt, I feel ridiculously hot, somewhat dizzy, and I have consumed my emergency salt packet (thanks Thai Airways!). Its hard to even take in the beauty of the rice paddies, the waves and ‘Sabai Di’s’ of the children along the way: I am hating this ride.
I note every one of the ‘milestones’ (actually spaced at km intervals) and still my destination of Muang Nam – the nearest place with a guest house – seems ridiculously far off. At times it seems impossible and I consider my options. Shall I flag down a truck and ask them to take me there – but stupidly I forgot this morning to go to an ATM before leaving the city despite knowing it was a priority – so am short on cash. I’ve got just enough I hope for a guest house and dinner? Shall I flag down a bus heading back to Luang Prabang and hope they have room for my bike? But nothing suitable passes. I walk up a dozen hills, freewheeling exhaustedly down the other side until blessedly the dusty unimpressive town of Muang Nam comes into sight.
I check into the first guest house, a strange oversize house at the entrance to town, where a group of men are drinking and playing cards in the vast foyer, but after delightedly stripping for a cooling shower in my ensuite bathroom, I find there is no water. Finally with Google translate, it is explained that there will be no water until 9am. I reluctantly pack up my bike, ask for a refund, and go and check if there is any possibility that this tiny town has a second guest house. Fortunately it does, and although I know I am being overcharged – I am asked for 100,000 kip, about $NZ20 – I am past caring. By 6.30pm as darkness falls, I am finally under a restorative cold shower. Later I walk down the street and find what appears to be a café, with two separate groups of young people around tables filled with food. Despite their surprise, they are friendly enough. I point to and am provided with a cold beer, and then Google translate comes to the fore again. “FOOD?” I write, and finding that possible, though I feel sure the cooks are sitting enjoying dinner themselves and probably thought themselves finished for the night. I try to think of something simple: “SOUP?” And 15 minutes later after smiling non verbal communication with both groups, including a little boy of about Harry’s age, my large bowl of herb-filled soup arrives. It’s a restorative and delicious end to ghastly day.