Tag Archives: biking

Crazy Falang

For Andrew’s last day in Laos, we decided to take a bike trip out of town.  Somehow this was premeditated, yet I completely failed to take all of the factors into consideration: my fitness level, the 90+ degree heat, the conversion between kilometers and miles (not as favorable as I led myself to believe), and the fact that we were leaving at the hottest and sunniest part of the day (around 12:30pm).  We had heard about a charming “floating restaurant” on the Nam Ngum River outside of town and thought it might be nice to bike there to check it out for lunch and see some of the surrounding countryside.  I’m not a particularly experienced biker.  In fact, I don’t even own a bike at home.  My experience has increased immensely in the past few days, biking through a city in which lanes are irrelevant and you can switch from riding in the road—wedged between cement mixers and songathaews—or staying safe and sticking to the right side of the road, which means you still might have to play chicken with motorbike drivers riding on the wrong side of the road.

finally, the floating restaurant

Friday’s “little bike trip” turned into a 6-hour, 50 kilometer (31 mile), excursion in the midday heat.  Very little shade, with plentiful dust and coursing sweat were the ingredients of the day.  Once we got out of the city, the ride became more pleasant as we passed through what might be closer to rural Laos—rice paddies, livestock, thatched roofs, small country shops.  It was clear that we had moved out of “cosmopolitan” Vientiane because of how many more stares we got, along with calls from the side of the road, many from people surprised and amused to see such obvious foreigners biking “for fun” at the most miserable part of the day, when most locals are hunkered down next to fans, or walking with umbrellas for shade.  Just another “crazy falang” thing to do.

The level of English also dropped drastically outside of Vientiane, making me wish I had started my Lao lessons earlier.  Most of the people we interacted with by the side of the road clearly had no idea what we were saying, and vice versa.  We stopped at a very local market to get some juice (served with coconut milk, condensed milk, and ice in plastic bags with straws) and were stared at from the moment we biked into the village.  I wanted so badly to take photos of the covered market—the eclectic collection of clothing, local crafts, and fly-covered meat—but felt like it would be almost disrespectful to pull out my big camera, despite the incredible photo-ops.  Perhaps at some point when I know enough Lao to ask politely for permission, I’ll feel more comfortable.

After numerous crises in morale, we nearly turned back (knowing we would still have to cover the distance back to Vientiane).  At the last moment, ready to leave, we showed a woman at one of the omnipresent lottery stands by the road the name of the restaurant.  Little comprehension passed between us, so she yelled across the street to a girl eating lunch.  The girl ran over, and after trying to explain directions in English, hopped on her motorbike and had us follow her the last half-kilometer until we finally reached the floating restaurant, Boungnanh.  The food—very spicy chicken laap and khao neow—was good, but mostly we enjoyed the sense of accomplishment that we had finally found the place after many hours on the road.  But there was still the ride home.  After the trek, I’m both sunburned and sore.  As soon as the first goes away, I’ll be looking to remedy the second with one of the inexpensive traditional massages all over town.  In the meantime, the foot and leg massage I got for $5 today will have to do.  I don’t want to sit on the bike again for a long time…but unfortunately I had to ride it to get to the internet café to post this.


Filed under Laos, Uncategorized, Vientiane

Welcome to Vientiane

Wat Si Saket

The hiatus in blogging has been because for the past 4 days, I’ve been playing host to someone else, though I still have much to figure out here myself.  My college friend Andrew, who is doing Princeton-in-Asia in Singapore, decided to come see Vientiane from Tuesday to Saturday.  His first introduction to Vientiane was trying to follow me across the city on bicycle at night, from one PiA house to the other.  This was only my second time biking in the city and my first without someone to follow, but it went relatively well.  Near-death experiences were few, and when I got lost, I soon found my way again without having to stop.  We spent the next few days biking everywhere and my understanding of the layout of the city, as well as its traffic patterns, has improved exponentially.  One step closer to being ready for a motorbike…which will be incredible, because I had no idea until now just how much you can sweat when biking in 90 degree weather, with the sun beating down incessantly.  The answer is a lot.  I think there have been several days in which my hair has never dried at all, between showers and sweat.

Tat Luang

I am far from establishing a routine here, but I get the sense that my lifestyle will waver between typically ex-pat and Lao.  The first night Andrew arrived, we experienced some of both.  We got to the PiA apartment where I’ve been staying and discovered a gecko hanging from the threshold of the kitchen.  Apparently when they die, they take awhile to fall because their hands are so sticky.  This one was dangling by a couple of fingers.  From there, we checked out the night market, whose offerings include the ubiquitous generic grilled meat (more on how this smell will forever remind me of Laos at another time), along with skewered frogs, various chicken body parts, gelatinous blood, and steamed fetal goose eggs.  From there we visited the other side of Lao culture, the brand-new Star nightclub and karaoke bar, where we had bottle service, the private VIP karaoke room, and a run-in with a has-been Lao rockstar (who announced the arrival of the falang—foreigners—over the loudspeaker).  Some of my Australian coworkers have lived in Vientiane for several years and have an in-depth knowledge of the hot spots of the Lao “high-so” (upper-class Lao), like this one.  It’s made the transition so much easier to have so many different guides from the moment I arrived.

I guess there's a reason "sunset on the Mekong" is iconic.

For the next days of Andrew’s visit we did some of the typical tourist activities in Vientiane (which admittedly are few) that my other friends here have seen long-ago.  Watching the sunset over the Mekong while drinking a Beerlao was obviously one stop, since this is one of the only Vientiane tourist clichés, found in every backpackers’ guide.  We sat for almost two hours and spent only $2 (one beer each), without getting hassled by the waiter once.  It’s just not done here, and everytime I go out, I find myself appreciating the fact that I can relax without getting asked “how everything is.”  The next day, we hit the major temples: Wat Si Saket, which has an enormous collection of differently-sized Buddha statues, and the iconic golden Pha Tat Luang.  Both were fascinating, though I understood so little of the significance of what we saw there.  Luckily, I have the rest of the year to find out.  We also climbed to the top of Patuxi, Vientiane’s version of the arc de triomphe, which lived up to the self-deprecating description at its base that admits: “From a closer distance, it appears even less impressive, like a monster of concrete.”  This is one monument that is definitely better viewed from afar, since it does impress when just driving past, especially at night.


Now I have a few more days to move to a new house (aside from touristing, I have been busy dealing with housing and just signed a lease—more on this in a future post), and finish getting oriented as best I can before teachers’ workshops and the start of the new term next week.

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Filed under Laos, Vientiane


On Saturday, I joined Clara’s family in a very unusual activity: Roman warboat rowing.  There is a site not far from here in Bad Iburg where an ancient battle mask was discovered.  After some archeological exploration, experts have decided that it is likely the site of a battle between the Romans and the Germanic peoples, where the Romans were beaten for one of the first times.  Today, there is a museum on the spot, and since this year marks the 2000th anniversary of the battle, the site is hosting special exhibitions and events.

Roman rowboat

Roman rowboat

One of these events is the rowing.  A costumed leader directs vistors on one hour tours in a recreated Roman rowboat.  We trekked down to the river to join in, and I tried to follow along as best as possible, despite all of the directions being in German.  But the hardest part turned out to be just handling the paddle, which was wooden and surprisingly heavy.  Steamboats passing us on the river stopped to stare at the strange sight.  After the workout, we took a quick tour of the museum, which has a gallery of painted masks, which are now symbols of peace, from all of the countries in the European Union. 

peace masks

peace masks

Yesterday, we took a bike ride through the surrounding countryside, which was quite fun, despite my lack of biking skills, because we were mostly passing through flat, untrafficked farmland.  At night, there were fireworks going on in town, which we watched from the roof, to celebrate a local festival going on right now, called Schutzenfest, which I still have only a dim understanding of.  From what Clara and her family tell me, it’s become an unexplainable local tradition, mainly a time for the old men to drink beer and wear green.  In a few hours, I’ll be leaving Germany for Brussels, Belgium by bus (an eight hour ride!), as the final leg of my journey begins.  Today marks 7 weeks that I’ve been away, with one more to go before I return to the United States.

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Filed under Bad Iburg, Germany

Tour de France

We took a break from packing this afternoon to fight the crowds downtown to catch the finale of the Tour de France, which was finishing in Paris today.  We found a spot on the Place de la Concorde, which is at the end of the Champs Elysees, where the bikers make a final few laps.  It was almost anticlimatic: swarms of people packed on the hot pavement, excitement rising as they found out the bikers were approaching, cheers, and then zip…a pack of cyclists flew by.  And then another 5 minutes until they would zip by again on their next lap.  Still an incredible experience though and a fun place to be on my last day in Paris.

eager fans at Place de la Concorde as the bikers arrive

eager fans at Place de la Concorde as the bikers arrive

Tonight, we returned to trivia night at the Highlander for a final go after being stumped last week, and walked away victorious.  Second place, not first, but our pride was intact this time.

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Filed under France, Paris