Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Mekong Ride MR2 Day 2 - Across the Friendship Bridge to Laos & Vientiane

It was simply magic to sleep on the comfortable bed of our First Class Cabin with the gentle rocking of the moving train. I wished we could sleep in but unfortunately, all good things often come to an early end. We had to wake up at dawn as our train was to arrive at Nong Khai station at 650am. It was special to see the morning sun slowly light up the Thai countryside as we chugged along at 70km/h and I will add, very romantic for me. The team all made their way to the dining carriage for a simple breakfast but as I told them, this will only be Part 1 so don't worry.

Reaching Nong Khai was an adventure itself. The choice was to cycle across the Friendship Bridge or take a train. As I have never hopped on to the connecting train to Thanaleng Station, a mere 15 mins ride, which was to leave at 730am, it was quite stressful given how little time we had.

Our team work sprung to action where I went with CFO Wendy to get the tickets while the rest got our bike boxes and panniers off the train. I found a huge trolley which could carry our 11 foldies and passed it to KC before scooting off to the ticket booth.

As it turned out, it is quite simple and for those attempting it, here is the procedure.

Step 1 - Buy your train tickets. When I asked for 11 pax, the clerk told me it was 3300B. I knew this was not right as she has sold me the "package". This is a bit of a rip off as the train fare was only 20B (80 cents) for 3rd class and if you were to take the van transfer at Thanaleng Station, it was only 150B. It pays to do your homework!  So 3300B miraculously became 220B as we planned to cycle to Vientiane from the train station.  What a difference! Incidentally, don't bother with paying 30B for 2nd Class, there really is NO difference in his old open air carriage.

Step 2 - Clear immigration at Thai side. They are quite lax about our mountain of boxes on the trolley and we just passed this through to the other side after immigration before queuing to officially exit Thailand and get our passports stamped.

Step 3. - Board the Lao 50 year old train! It's like entering into another world especially after our brand new luxury train, They are not so concern about bicycles here and so long as it gets on board, nobody seems to mind as I am sure many chickens and perhaps a goat or two have done the same. We had the whole carriage ALL to ourselves. The Lao train officer was very friendly as well and she obliged me with a photo.

It was special to be chugging across the long Friendship Bridge and before we knew it, we arrived at Thanaleng Station. Everyone was so happy that the connection to Laos on the rickety train proved butter smooth, definitely an answered prayer

Step 4 - Disembark from the train and clear immigration. The main advantage of taking the train is that there are so few passengers as compared to crossing the border at the Friendship Bridge. Visa on Arrival for those who need it is also available here so just bring your passport photo and US$. Australians are charged US$30. As the queue formed to stamp their passports, we took the opportunity to assemble our foldies and then cleared immigration when everyone else were done.

This link has more detailed information about the procedure for crossing into Lao fm Nong Khai.

We took about 30 mins to set up our bikes and many times, the bikes come out fine after flight. Except that this time when we set off, Celia was complaining about her FD. Closer inspection revealed a bent cable and thanks to George and KC, we were on our way after a slight delay.

It was to be an easy fuss free 25km ride to our hotel in Vientiane and as I turned right at Thadeau Rd towards the capital city, we lost the rear segment of the team. Turned out Wendy's bike had a puncture. 2 mechanical issues on the first hour! We cycled to a coffee shop that sold noodle soup and waited for our friends to arrive. I am not a fan of Laotian noodle soup as they are often MSG laced but beggars can't be choosers. However, the ice cold drinks were very welcomed and needed, even though we have cycled barely 4km.

The ride into the city was interesting as the scenery changed from wide open green fields to build up city. 2 boys decided to race with us too and it was fun playing with them. It was great to pass the Australian Embassy and when we came to the Singapore Embassy, some of us stopped to get a photo in honour of Spore 52nd National Day.

As we entered Vientiane, I remembered being here some 9 years ago and was happy to see some familiar sights. We were so happy to check into the Golden Sun Hotel as it had been a rather long journey here - plane, train and bike. I wasted no time to jump into one of 2 pools for a quick dip before we met up for lunch.

PVO was recommended by our friend Chris Wee as they have absolutely the best Spring Rolls, Viet Noodles and Baquettes. They have moved from their riverside location since and now have grown into 2 restaurants, the other specialising in noodles. Our Chief Food Officer VT sprung into action, ordered practically everything and we enjoyed a wonderful feast.

Celia had a meeting with the University of Health Science at 3pm so we all accompanied her there before waiting for her at the famous JOMA Bakery, enjoying cold drinks and coffees.

JOMA is special to me as my first visit to Vientiane in 2009 involved meeting the very entrepreneurial owner Michael Harder who bought this cafe from his Sunday School Teacher in Canada and turned into one of the best New York style cafe in the region. JOMA has since expanded to Vietnam and Cambodia.

The ladies went shopping at Talat Sao Shopping Mall with the patient George volunteering to be the bicycle watchman. VT, Claud, KC and I went cycling to the riverside and to scout for a good place for dinner. Getting around Vientiane is best done on a bicycle and we enjoyed the sights including many old French colonial houses, parks and the grand Presidential Palace.

We cycled to the river where we could see the town of Sri Chiang Mai Thailand on the opposite side and it was humbling to be at the mighty Mekong, which stretches 4000km from China, all the way to Vietnam, Mekong Delta. 

One of the best places to stop for a drink is Sister Nui's Fruit Shakes. Ms Nui speaks perfect English and is so friendly. Her fresh juices are really what is needed for those hot afternoons and we wanted to stay there forever. I asked her where she would take her family for a birthday dinner and she recommended Cuisine Laos, which is just through a back alley opposite her shop. We checked it out and it impressed and promptly made a booking.

The girls were back in the hotel earlier than us and were enjoying a dip! They did not us want to cycle with us to see the sunset and just as well as the dark clouds were looming, with strong winds blowing. But just before we left for dinner, the skies opened. We had to wait awhile but decided to walk to the restaurant. Dinner was easy to order as Ms Nui already told us the best dishes and we were very glad to be there. Service was excellent, ambience very classy and the food tasty. Price too was very reasonable - at about $8 per person.

After dinner coffee were taken at a very modern cafe and we chatted until it was time to go. It was still drizzling but we didn't mind one bit. We had come here for this ride to be riding in the rain for its much cooler especially in this time of the year.

I was especially so happy to be here in Vientiane and we walked back to the hotel literally singing in the rain. All of us slept very well with great excitement and anticipation at the start of a glorious adventure!

Pics - KC and I

Monday, August 21, 2017

Mekong Ride MR2 Day 1 - A plane, 2 trains and 11 bicycles to Laos.

2 Bike Fridays and our gear - all ready to go!

Some full size tourers hoping to board the train too. But their bikes had to ride in the luggage carriage unlike us foldies!

He came to convert the seats to beds with fresh smelling sheets! Kup khoon kup.

Our lovely LTF ladies!

You don't want to fool around with this stern Railway Officer!

I slept poorly! Blame it on the great anticipation of a wonderful tour which day had finally arrived. LTF Team Members came from Australia, Malaysia and various parts of Singapore to meet at Changi T2 at 10am for our flight to Bangkok. It was so good to see everyone finally and we exchanged the warmest of hellos! Checking in our bike boxes was a breeze with typical Spore efficiency and a quick meal at the T2 staff canteen to catch up is a must do.

Our Tiger flight to Bangkok took off a little later due to heavy traffic and we were glad when we finally were in the air. It took less than 2 hours before we arrived at Swarmbunny Airport (ok - the actual name is Suvarnabhumi but how do you pronounce that???) and as expected, it was literally swarmed with so many tourists. We took awhile to clear immigration but that was ok as our train to Nong Khai was not leaving till 8pm and we had 6 long hours ahead of us.

Unfortunately, our arranged van transfer to Hua Lampong Railway Station was nowhere to be seen! They were supposed to be at the arrival gates with a sign but ... A kind Thai lady helped me call them and we were soon on our way into the heart of Bangkok in 2 vans. In all my years travelling to Bangkok, I have somehow never visited the historical train station and I was excited to see the magnificent 101 year old building in all its spendour.

It was great that our 10 bike boxes were taken care off by the porter who initially told us that we could not bring them on board the trains. But when shown our First Class tickets, our precious steeds were given VIP treatment, and all for 200B. 

We were supposed to meet our 11th member Carolen in the station at the Information Counter but when I got there, she was nowhere to be found until I heard her familiar voice and looked down towards the floor. There she was, chatting with the locals and sprawled comfortably on the floor like a "refugee" and indeed, that was what we all did as we awaited our train.

VT our Chief Food Officer went on the prowl for a suitable dinner venue and came back successful. The rest of us did errands like getting a SIM card, buying snacks and you know who went for a nicotine fix. Though we had to wait nearly 4 hours, the time flew by quickly somehow as we kept busy with so many things. Celia took the opportunity to make sure her patient Sue was in tip top condition as she had a shoulder injury earlier in the year and was certified good to tour!

Dinner was just across the station at a very warm and inviting Thai restaurant and the food was "aroy" or delicious as expected. VT ordered very well indeed! The bill too came up to only about $5 per head and that was the pleasant trend for most part of our tour. 

Boarding the train was exciting as we have all seen the photos and videos of this beautiful first class cabin and in reality, it was even better! A nice surprise was our very efficient porter actually loaded all the bikes into our cabins and we expressed our appreciation with well deserved tips. 

It was quite a fiasco sorting out the right box to the rightful owners and with other passengers coming through the narrow corridors as well, it got rather messy.  But we all took it in good stride and before we knew it, we were comfortably settled into our private cabin and on our way to Nong Khai.

We were truly like school kids on our first excursion as it took forever to settle down as we darted in and out of each others cabins, laughed, chatted, explored etc. It was also very nice to be provided with thick full size towels so we could have a much needed shower and that was something that we all truly appreciated. Nothing like a warm shower before bed but with the bobbing of the train, it was a truly interesting and challenging experience. What impressed was how clean and spanking new everything was.

Some of the team went to bed early while I went to have supper with Sue and Carolen in the dining carriage. Walking through the 2nd class sleepers, we were quite impressed with it too but the extra 40-50% for first class was worth every baht. 

The menu was surprisingly quite good with various types of coffees, sandwiches and even Thai rice dishes. Nice tables with comfortable chairs meant a very conducive ambience to watch the world zoom by on our rails (esp at dusk) while we enjoy a nice chat over hot drinks in airconditioned comfort. 

When I finally was ready for bed, it was nearly midnight and hitting the sack never got easier with such a comfortable bed with the gentle rocking of the train. The bonus of course was that I had my honey bunny with me. The lullaby Rock-A-Bye-Baby came to mind but we knew with the reliability and engineering of this fine train, and God's amazing grace, nothing will break and none of us will fall, except fall into a deep deep sleep... unlike my sleep the night before. 

*some pics borrowed fm KC