With Day 1 safely under the belt I groggily arose early at 0627 for Day 2. The side effects from the Doxycycline had started kicking in and I’d had some silly, memorable but unrestful dreams for the previous few days.
I snuck a quick peak out the window to see the weather conditions without letting too much light into the room. I quickly shifted into gear, jumped out of bed and put on warm clothes. The girls quickly followed to do the same and by 0640 we were out the door ready for the 0645 sunrise. I was already a little concerned that the sky was well lit without the sun in sight. Since we were already up I said nothing so we continued down towards the lake.
Naty, one of the other guests was already down there fully expecting himself to be the only person that made it for the sunrise. We waited in suspense.
At 0650 the sun finally appeared, already risen, bursting through a hole in the clouds. Though we missed it, I still wasn’t disappointed. Even without the sun, the serenity created an aptly cool temperature in the morning, a single lonely tree in the middle of the lake and the local fisherman going about their morning business created a vista for our eyes. I took one picture, but this was one enjoyed with mindfulness, silence and without technology.
With that done Sinead, Abbie and I met Camille and Celine for breakfast, somewhere between Pain au Chocolat, Omlette’s, fruit and yoghurt we were all well fed and ready for another day of stunning scenery. We settled up our tabs for the room, breakfast and the BBQ buffet we had for dinner the night before and were doing our final bits and bobs just before we headed off. I was going to suggest that we get sandwiches for the road as we didn’t know where we’d end up for lunch, but then decided against it as we all opined the previous day how many restaurants there were on the road. With that done we filled our tanks with a litre of petrol each bringing us up to just under a full tank of petrol.
We headed off, Eastward crossing a bridge. The route would take us east away from Thalang before turning north, and then finally bearing west towards our pit stop for the night, Ban Nahin. We resumed our usual formation, with Celine our expert navigator leading and me tailing behind with the first aid kit.
The next few hours was an incredible ensemble of planet Earth humbly and confidently showing off her beauty in a diverse variety show. Like a patchwork blanket with the most seamless transitions between colours and texture the journey ahead was stunning, challenging yet fun. [Edit: I was hoping to have added stop motion video footage of each of the different types of terrain I had come across however these were all stored on my phone which unfortunately I no longer have access to. The photos and videos were lost with the phone. RIP faithful iPhone 6. As a result you’ve got the wordier, more descriptive version of events]
As we headed east out of Thalang, we drove through an area that was akin to a landlocked archipelago. A giant lake broken up by lots of islands, with one road cutting across the islands, carving a path for us to admire the beauty. Each lake had tiny islands with dried trees towering over the lake with their reflection perfectly formed in the still lake, behind the dead trees were rich green forests serving as a reminder to the former life of the now dry trees, finally in the far distance were the mountains, many of which we were yet to drive through. The pictures show a small window into the beauty, but it was the scale of the peculiar view that added to the beauty. This picture (as is the case with most in this post) does not do the scenery justice, but at least that leaves you something to see when you do The Loop.
Once we made it through the lakes and dead forests we were turning through more windy forest roads and mountains, always with tree covered mountains in the background. This wouldn’t last long though. We were warned by the bike rental company we would encounter a 40km stretch of road that would test the bikes. Whilst the green forests stayed surrounding us, the smooth road came to an abrupt end in favour of an uninviting bumpy, rocky clay path.
We pulled over to tie our scarves or t-shirts or any other available loose garments around our face. Between our sun glasses and our make shift scarves, our face was mostly dust proof. The Tip Book had strongly recommended covering our faces; a solid tip from those who hadn’t and had their eyes and respiratory system overwhelmed with orange dust.
The first 5km of the unpaved road had road construction works taking place. That meant 5km of biking through WET bumpy, rocky clay roads muddy clay roads whilst attempting to dodge the various heavy duty vehicles like digging machines, machines that gathered together the rocks and the stones into the middle of the road, and massive rolling pins that smoothed it out. Fortunately the tyres on our bikes were slightly thinner with deeper treads helping us to better take on the turbulence of the road.
Once we were passed the 5km of road construction the road dried up very abruptly. That was both good news and bad news. The good news was our traction had massively improve and our back tyres were no longer sliding over the place. The bad news was dry dust flies. Dry dust flies with the wind, dry dust flies as it’s propelled off the 40kph back tyre in front of you, and dry dust flies after a car has driven past you in either direction creating a cloud of orange that limited visibility and even through your sunglasses gets in your eyes. However, for the most part, the road had become flat making it easy to drive on.
As we drove through the dry terrain, the trees either side of us fell away into the distance leaving fields of dry scorched mud, followed by forests, followed by mountains. Just as we became comfortable, the road transformed again into an incredibly pebbly, rocky and bumpy assault course for the bike. Our pace once again slowed down as we all tried to maintain control over our back tyres which wobbled and slid around as it found the path of least resistance in the rocks.
After 5km we had made it through without incidence and we were back out on to dry dusty flat roads. The fields surrounding us broadened even further running all the way to the mountains with a few shrubs between us and the tree covered mountains. As a result the further we drove the more the road widened out. The road had become so wide that it became impossible to tell where on the road delineated the direction of traffic. There was plenty of space for all so it really didn’t matter.
Eventually the road narrowed, and some of the trees started to sparsely reappear around us. The trees formed layers of colours, those closest to the road appeared to grow naturally brown leaves as the dust from the road completely enveloped the tree. If you concentrated hard enough you could see a hint of their former green leaves desperate to show through. The trees in the background showed off their dust free green leaves taunting the trees by the road with their former look.
We had to pass through one more slightly wet and muddy patch where Abi lost her back tyre but managed to catch the bike and Sinead avoiding a tumble into wet boggy clay. Only being about 1 second behind them, I slammed on my break to avoid a collision and almost lost my back tyre too, I just managed to catch it avoiding landing with my bike in the muddy pit. We proceeded slowly through until we were on dry land again.
15 minutes later the inhospitable but successfully traversed 40km stretch stopped as abruptly as it started, leading onto a well laid tarmac motorway that would take us the rest of the way. We slowed and pulled over into a monastery to stretch our legs and take a comfort break.
I unfastened the makeshift mask from around my face and removed my sunglasses. For 45 minutes my right eye had been burning ever so slightly but the air was too dirty to stop and inspect. I checked my eye in my wing mirror and noticed sleep in the corner of my eye. I wiped it with a clean part of my t-shirt. The sleep was stained orange with clay and little dust and clay particles came out with the sleep. It was both gross (thinking about how much dust had got into my eye) and really cool (how awesomely the eye gets rid of gunk from the eyeball).
I’m going to make a small digression to give Nikon a pat on the back. I had my camera out of its case, around my neck at the ready through all of the above journey and more. Even through the dust the weather sealed camera didn’t let any dust into the camera or lens and didn’t fall apart over bumpy roads. #NikonD7100 Digression complete.
After stretching our legs we headed off again down the paved road.
15 minutes down the main road and were immediately surrounded by trees again, with layers of mountains either trees in the distance. The roller coaster of scenery and thus emotions continued.
The further down the road we went, the more the valley narrowed. The trees grew taller and thicker until they completely blocked the view of the surrounding hills which we knew to still be there.
As we reached the peak of a hill and started looking down at our descent path, the landscape once again reappeared. Down the hill the view opened up, the trees fall away at 60kph behind us and once again we were presented with open fields with a mountainous background.
The rest of the way was mostly like this: ascending and descending hills, the road narrowing with trees and opening up into fields, straight roads and big windy roads, passing through villages full of life and back into the mostly untamed natural landscape.
After several more kilometres of the cyclically appearing landscape, we were approaching the area where our stop off point and sight would be, the Cool Spring. Many before us had tried to find it, but to no avail. Many people called it a myth in the Tip Book. There were repeated warnings that the Cool Spring doesn’t exist. We studied the outline map provided to us by the bike company and the actual map to figure out where we need to turn.
None of the roads that were on the map materialised. We kept driving straight looking for right turnings. The only ones we found were roads leading towards the Laos-Vietnam border which would take us too far away from the Nam Theun river where the cool spring was most likely to be. Another turning appeared but this road would take us back towards Vientiane, Camille was certain that this was the road, but the consensus of the group was to keep driving [as it turns out that was the right road]. We kept driving straight. We reached the first right turning that would lead to roughly the right place. It was 10km from where it should be. We sized up the road and decided to ride on. Something about the road just didn’t give us the right vibe, be it the driving conditions or faith as to whether it would take us to the unnamed, unsigned mythical cool spring.
I looked at the map, further down the road we would cross the Nam Theun river which was promising.
We took a left turning down a muddy road towards the rover. As we followed the road down it curved to run parallel to the river. We kept on going. Further down the road we found a village where the road turned off towards the river. We were met with smiles, curiosity and interest. We parked our bikes and started taking pictures. The children were coming back from school either walking or on their bicycles. They were really excited to see us. It was very apparent that they didn’t get too many western visitors if any coming to visit them.
Unfortunately we couldn’t stay long. Camille and I said we need to get out. Clouds had moved in over us. They were the dark ones, the ones ready to chuck themselves down on you. The humidity in the had increased. The temperature cooled. The road we had come down on was clay mud, with rocks, uneven and hilly. It was going to rain and we didn’t want to still be riding back on the dirt road when it hits; the 10 minute road would have taken us 2 hours. We were already familiar with the road having just ridden down it so when we headed back we were clocking 40-50kph instead of the 30kph on the way over. As we rode the humidity in the air continued to intensify, the temperature continued to cool.
Within 8 minutes we were through and back on the main road. We agreed to get to the next town, find a place to eat and sit out the weather in a restaurant. The speed in which it had come in suggested we’d be through it in an hour.
Two minutes after we turned off the dirt road onto the main road, I felt the first few splatters of rain on my face. Within a few more minutes we were riding in a light drizzle. Celine pulled up on the side of the of the mud. We all slowed. We knew we were about to get hit hard. After we all came to a stop, we didn’t wait around. Everyone sprung into action. Bags came off. We put our rain coats or ponchos on first. We put our bag covers on the bags and put any loose things into the boots of the bikes.
We set off again, very aware the roads were now really wet and we were going around mountain curves. As we rode along the wet road I remember my childhood friend Hickesh telling me after he bought his bike how as soon as it started raining in London, his bike had zero grip and pretty much aquaplaned along. We slowed our top speed. The drizzle became full on rain and quickly became a torrential down pour. The rain drops continued to get bigger and bigger. We had all spaced out to give us a bigger reaction and breaking distance. We needed to stop and take cover fast.
I momentarily lost everyone from sight as one by one they disappeared over the hill. As I emerged over the hill I saw everyone slowing fast. Celine had pulled over. I quickly saw why. There was a large shack/restaurant?/building. I couldn’t tell what it was but it was enough. As I came to a stop I heard Camille relay the question, “Shall we keep going or should we stop here?” I had already weighed up the options. I instantly shouted “Go up”, pointing my whole arm in the direction of the building. Everyone turned left and up the hill straight away.
It was a tricky ascent. The hill was waterlogged mud. To those who went to QE Boys, think the Elephant Dip, but clay, and a steep hill. Camille made it all the way to the top in one. Celine had got stuck on the side of the road. Abi and Sinead made it half way up and got stuck. I was about the same. I hopped off the bike, rolled it back and hit the accelerator to walk it up. Sinead, jumped off the bike and Abi did the same. We parked it in the garage next to the main building. I met the girls in the restaurants. The building had a projector and a screen, lots of Beer Lao advertising, tables and chairs. It looks like a make shift sports bar. We hoped it had a restaurant too.
As we started shedding off our wet layers to lay it out to dry, Celine said “I’ve left my bike outside. D’you think it’s okay?”. I figured it’s just going to get even more water logged and will just be harder to get it out later. It was thumping it down. I said I’ll go get it. She passed me her key and with a bit of struggle I walked the bike up the hill revving the engine . By the time I got back my Vibram five finger shoes and the bottom of my trousers were soaked through, clumps of we clay were stuck to it weighing down my feet.
We asked if the bar had any hot tea or food. The best they had was packets of Nori Seaweed flavoured Lay’s crisps. That would do. We all devoured the crisps. It was about 1530 and we hadn’t had lunch while we were driving around trying to find the cold spring. We felt better under cover and the rain got a lot worse before it got better. As we had thought, within 30 minutes the rain started letting up and 20 more minutes later it had stopped. The ground was wet but the sun was out and drying everything fast.
We hit the road again and had two things on our mind. Eat up, dry up. We rode to the next village about 10 minutes down the road and couldn’t find a restaurant. We asked an old lady who had a table outside of her home/shop whether she could make us some food. She agreed. I’m a vegetarian and Celine is very allergic to carrots. If she eats it her face swells up to the size of a balloon. I walked into the kitchen to try and explain. I saw she was about to put some chicken feet into the soup broth. I gestured no. Went through her fridge and only found meats and fish. So I took her to the front of the shop, pointed to some vegetables and eggs signalling to make the soup with those ingredients. She held up noodles and we said yes with so much enthusiasm she chuckled. We sat in the sun waiting for our trousers to dry.
The soup was served up. It smells delicious. It tasted even better than delicious. We were quiet for 10 minutes as we lapped it all up. Not fond of the taste of egg I ate as much as I could, then passed my bowl to Camille who finished it up.
We continued on after lunch and dried quickly with the wind and sun beating down on us. The next stop was the Son Nam water fall. Once again the road was tricky, but the mud was mostly dry so it was easy to go through. We went as far as we could with the bikes then had to walk the rest of the way. We bumped into a couple that we knew who said it was a 30 minute hike. So we set off through a small path in the midst of a jungle with two canopy layers. The air in the jungle was really humid and most of the 30 minutes were steep ascent up rocks and buttress roots of the trees. The waterfall was underwhelming because it was the dry season. But we all just sat by the rocks and chilled out.
Somebody said, “We’re here alone, why don’t you meditate”. I asked if anyone wanted me to lead them through a guided meditation. As it turns out everyone. So, everyone got into comfortable positions and for the next 15 minutes we sat in silence with only my voice every now and then interrupting the serenity. At the end some Celine and Abbie woke up from their meditation and Camille and Sinead came out of it properly. With that everyone felt relaxed and fresh. We hiked our way back through the jungle. We headed 1 minute down the road and found the hotel that was marked on the map as a good place to go.
The hotel was cheap and incredibly clean. We slept really comfortably that night.