Monthly Archives: November 2014

Crossing the Border into Laos

This fairly new road did not show up on my Garmin.
This fairly new road did not show up on my Garmin.

Today we said goodbye to Thailand. Actually, I prefer to think of it as “see ya later” because I loved being here so much. But our visa is soon to expire and we’ve gotten so comfortable here that we need to find a new challenge. Being able to order food, find lodging with good wifi, purchase SIM cards with cheap data, and say “hello” are all fine and good, but all the “experts” say that mental challenges will help us to live longer, so Laos, here we come!

After making Thanksgiving calls to the US, stocking up on non-perishable foods from Tesco, and chatting with a Baptist missionary (who, by the way, lives in America but was from Laos and is supporting a mission to a Hill Tribe in Thailand) assures us that we are safer in Laos than in the US right now, we started pedaling.

Our bikes road in the bus like passengers. Our panniers were underneath.
Our bikes road in the bus like passengers. Our panniers were underneath.

I’ve got to admit it. Border crossings make me nervous. Ever since I saw “Midnight Cowboy” in the 1970s I’ve been afraid of border crossings. Crossing into Yugoslavia in the early 80s by train yielded lots of harassment from the conductor and Turkish coffee sales man for about 36 hours. Being detained while leaving Malaysia due to a missing entry stamp added to the anxiety. Maybe the website saying Laos allows visas on arrival was out of date. Maybe I’m carrying something that is forbidden in this country. Maybe I’ll be like Tom Hanks and stuck in the “international zone” indefinitely.

Luckily, today went of without a hitch. We cycled about 10 km south of Chiang Khong to the new “Friendship Bridge IV”. We left Thailand and rolled our bicycles to a ticket counter for the “friendship bus” that would drive us across the bridge to Laos. For an additional 100 baht ($3) our bikes were loaded through a side window and given priority seats on the bus.

Arriving in the Laos side, we completed the appropriate paperwork for a Laos visa. The crossing guard took our passports and told us to wait a few minutes. 10 minutes and $35 later we had a fancy Thai visa stuck in our passport.

The kilometer or so long crossing took us to an entirely new place – new language, new type of toilets, and driving on the “right” side of the road. (This last change, even though I’ve spent 53 years of my life driving on the right, has really thrown me for a loop. The mirror on my bike is on the wrong side, my leg muscles are weak on this side of the road. I have to think about left turns again instead of U-turns.) Thank goodness there is almost no traffic.

This was a new hotel and we were the only guests. The disco at night, however, was hopping all night long.
This was a new hotel and we were the only guests. The disco at night, however, was hopping all night long.

We found a nice hotel – don’t ask me how. I just saw a newly painted sign and some balconies jutting out over a cliff up a very steep hill, so we shifted down, pedaled up and came to a beautiful place, with a modern bathroom, a very comfortable bed, and wifi that appears to work but doesn’t really.

The reward after a stressful day.
The reward after a stressful day.

I feel asleep before Eric (VERY uncommon unless we’re at the movie theater watching car races or shoot ‘em up films) indicating both the stress of border crossings and the relief that we our “at home” in our new county.

Fun at the Golden Triangle

The Golden Buddha at the Golden Triangle - Burma, Laos, and Thailand
The Golden Buddha at the Golden Triangle – Myranmar (Burma) , Laos, and Thailand

Two months ago I could not have told you what the Golden Triangle was or where the Mekong River was located. Tonight, I’m looking at the flashing lights of the Chinese Casino located in Laos just across the Mekong River from our hotel in the Golden Triangle of Thailand. I’m sitting outside at the hotel lounge with the peacefulness of the night occasionally interrupted by motorcycles racing on the road behind the hotel. “Song Sung Blue” sung by a female Thai voice is piping through the sound system. An occasional patrol boat is slowing cruising by on the river.

From all outward appearances, I could be relaxing by any river in the US. Waves are lapping at the shore. The sky is dotted with stars. A crescent moon is reflected upon the smooth glass of the river. I feel full and satisfied from the pizza I just finished. (OK, I’m lying. It was two pizzas and a giant salad and two beers and two chocolate chip cookies, and shot of vodka but I didn’t order that, it was a “gift” from the owner) But, I do feel satisfied and not all that full actually.

But, here’s what makes today’s experience so unique:

First – We ate at Mekong Pizza – Aside from delicious pizza, it’s the first pizza place I know that delivers to three countries, yes, I said COUNTRIES: Burma (Myranmar – depending upon your political ties), Laos, and Thailand.

Me: I’d like to order a pepperoni pizza.
Mekong Pizza: OK. That will be about 15 minutes. What’s your address?
Me: I’m at the Casino in Laos, black jack table #10.
Mekong Pizza: That’ll be 300 Baht. I’ll send the pizza boat driver right over.

Second – I met my first NPR correspondent, Michael Sullivan who writes the blog Mouth of the Mekong .Yep,  we met a real journalist. A guy who takes cool pictures at sunrise, or makes observations about local politics, or writes whatever he wants because who is really going to fly 26 hours to fact check anything. A journalist. For NPR. So, just pinch me already. Does that make me more famous just by association?

Third – I could gamble, if I that were my passion. I could grab a boat across the Mekong River (the 10th largest river in the world I learned today at the Opium Museum) and gamble. If I spoke Chinese I’d head to Laos to the Chinese casino where they speak only Chinese. If I spoke Thai, I’d head to Burma where I don’t know what they speak but the Thais go because gambling is illegal here, and come on, do you really need words when there are the two universal languages of cards and money? I can see both casinos, and countries for that matter, from my vantage point.

So, today’s seemingly normal experiences at the Golden Triangle, a place I’ve only recently learned about, had their unique twists. The Golden Triangle, the intersection of the borders of three countries, means three golden opportunities for fun (eating pizza or photographing the backside of a golden Buddah in Thailand, gambling in Burma, or gambling in Laos) all at one convenient location in SE Asia.

Bikes on a Long Boat

If you’re a cycle tourist purist  e.g. only ride your bicycle and never use another form of transport,  then you can skip this post. However, if skirting rapids, racing through lush tropical forests, feeling the wind in your hair, and taking photos with natives interests you, then read on.

Bikes loaded and ready to go.
Bikes loaded and ready to go.

This morning, after a great rest and the luxury of sleeping in, making a few phones calls to family, and enjoying a second cup of coffee with delicious scrambled eggs, we loaded up our bikes and cycled about 500 meters down a sandy, dirt road to the bank of the Mae Kok (tributary to the Mekong) River. There we met our long boat driver who proceeded to load our bicycles and packs onto our very own long boat.

Lots of interesting scenery.
Lots of interesting scenery.

The cool mist was thick over the river and I was actually a little chilled and wearing my first long sleeved shirt and jacket in over a year. The crisp air and the excitement at having a rest from cycling added to the fun.

After a couple of false starts, the engine sputtered to life and we were off. The driver steered a quick 180 and down the river we headed.

I was surprised at how fast we were traveling. Even more surprising were the number of rapids, twists and turns in the river and obstacles including rocks, driftwood and sandbars dotting the river bed. It was actually kind of thrilling/scary kind of like a roller coaster and I was mentally making a note to give the guy a good trip if we made it to Chiang Rai alive.

Navigating rapids and narrow channels
Navigating rapids and narrow channels

As it turns out, our driver was very skilled and navigated the river like a seasoned pro. He ran the rapids, steered through tiny channels, and rolled up his pants and pushed us off a sandbar with ease. At one point he docked on the edge of a tiny hill where about four hill-tribe children came running down, met the boat, and led us to their village to sell us some local purses and scarves.

Hill-Tribe children met us at the boat and led us up the hill to their village.
Hill-Tribe children met us at the boat and led us up the hill to their village.

Another stop was at a hot springs where we soaked our feet in warm water and enjoyed the laughter of several very young children splashing in their birthday suits.

A warm soak on a sunny day.
A warm soak on a sunny day.

The ride ended just under four hours later and the long-boat driver even dropped us on the south side of the river where there was a sandy beach that was easy to push our bikes up. (The other side was steep stairs).

The boat left us off here.
The boat left us off here.

All day long I couldn’t help but pinch myself. A boat ride for 4 hours with our bicycles down a beautiful river in Northern Thailand is something I never dreamed of doing. I recommend the boat trip from Tha Ton to Chiang Rai as another “must do.”

Learning More about Retirement in Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai Cultural Arts and Historical Museums
Chiang Mai Cultural Arts and Historical Museums

We just spent five days in Chiang Mai. Our original goal was to give our bodies a rest from cycling, get our bicycles tuned up for the next leg of our journey, and do some “vacation” type activities like eat Western food and go to a movie. All of our goals were accomplished. We rented a motor scooter while our bikes were being fitted with new chains and cassettes. We watched the movie “Interstellar” and we ate things like burgers, pizza, pork tenderloin, and steak fajitas, the latter which by the way, caused us to extend our “vacation” by one day because of giving Eric an intense bout of food poisoning.

Our mini vacation was good, minus the stomach tango, but the real benefit to our stay in Chiang Mai was the exposure to the many different foreigners who have retired there. We met people from all over the world who chose to spend all or part of each year in this lovely, small crossroads between the northern and southern trade routes. (I learned about this from my afternoon at the museum).

I’m curious about how and why people move halfway across the world to spend the rest of their life. Our five-day sojourn, thanks to our Warmshower’s host who has chosen to retire in this city, exposed us to many different people, some of the local bars and restaurants, and many of the local conveniences- post office, shopping, pharmacy, grocery store that carries peanut butter, etc.

Here are some of the things I learned about Chiang Mai as a retirement destination:

The cost of living is low. For about $20,000/year a person can live quite comfortably – a nice two bedroom flat, good meals, money for entertainment and some travel in SE Asia.

It has the feel of a small, friendly village with the conveniences of a large city – malls, good restaurants (well, maybe not Mexican food), live music, plenty of sports activities like tennis, volleyball, golf, hiking, biking, yoga.

It would survive without the tourists, unlike some of the Thailand beach places. Sure, there are a lot of tourists in Chiang Mai, but there are also several good universities including a medical school and lots of businesses, industry, and farming.

It has a large expat community so it’s easy to find someone who speaks your language.

It has a “cool” season. Sure, it gets hot in the summer months, but right now its perfect. Mid 70’s, sunny, green, less humid. As a matter of fact, tonight will be my first in over a year without air-conditioning.

It has a good airport, train station and plenty of local buses, plus it cyclist and motor scooter friendly. You don’t need a car.

But most importantly, it has a restaurant that makes a delicious Eggs Benedict.

Could we retire here?

Me: Probably not. It’s too far from family. I haven’t seen many expat women my age, There are many twenty somethings or locals who don’t speak enough English. Sure, I could learn more Thai but it would be years (or probably never) before I could share my deepest thoughts.

Eric: Probably yes. He’s already made lots of buddies. He likes the slower pace, the weather, the convenience, the cost, the friendliness.
In any event, this layover in Chiang Mai has been enlightening in our journey of cycling for retirement.

The Need for Conversation

Riding and chatting with new Australian friend.

Eric and I have been traveling for 47 days. We are settling into a routine. We’re solving problems. We’re trying new foods, seeing beautiful scenery, visiting ancient ruins and beautiful temples. We’re reading books and trying to stay current with the news. In other words, we’re making a “life” on a bicycle.

But….sometimes I feel bored, homesick, or lonely. I like people. I like to talk….a LOT…I like to teach. I like to listen. I like to learn. Luckily the past few days have filled those voids.

After ten days on the road, you can imagine my joy at having a Retired- in-Thailand-Australia cyclist join us for a morning ride and breakfast. It was our good fortune that the traffic was light and the morning was cooler than usual as we pedaled side-by-side at a leisurely pace and chatted away 20 km. If the conversation was not reward enough, the northern Thai curry he introduced us to,was the icing on the cake for a perfect morning. It was hard to say “see-ya-later” and continue the journey, but we knew we would meet again in two days for a ride with the Chiang Mai Sunday Cyclists.

Another opportunity to talk came from our current host. After about 40 days of hotels, and because there were Warmshower’s hosts in Chiang Mai, I decided to contact a host. I wasn’t exactly comfortable with the idea of staying at a stranger’s house, but I knew we’d had good experiences as hosts in Malaysia. I also thought this host could help with ides of where to stay and what to see in Chiang Mai. See the need for “conversation?”

Lovely hosts in Chiang Mai
Lovely hosts in Chiang Mai

We arrived thinking we’d stay only one night and then move to a hotel so we could take care of some business items: shopping, paying bills, bike repairs, photocopies, dumping more weight from our packs. But we connected so well with this host, and he insisted we make his house feel like home and generously offered us a key. So, here we still are. Even better, he’s organized a couple of guys to join us on our ride north to Chiang Rai. That is, of course, after we eat a great “eggs Benedict” at a local restaurant and check out some famous tourist areas.

Chiang Mai Sunday Cyclists meet the mayor.
Chiang Mai Sunday Cyclists meet the mayor.

A final opportunity for conversation was the ride with the Chiang Mai Sunday Cycling tour filled the bill. This group is a mix of people from everywhere: Thailand, Australia, England, Holland, the USA, Canada…It was great just to talk, talk, talk. As a matter of fact, were it not for my Garmin and Eric’s taking pictures, I could not tell you where we rode on Sunday or what we saw. But, I could tell you everything I learned by talking.

Our Sunday ride took us to a village with Thai children performing traditional music and skits.

Thankfully, this respite has filled my cup with conversation and my belly with food. I’m ready to ride on…