Tuesday, December 23, 2008

conquering the loop alpine style

Our second visit to Bangkok brought us to the Siriraj teaching hospital's parasitology, pathology, and forensics museums (special thanks to Paul A. for the recommendation). The exhibit included lovely blown glass models of Giardia lamblia and Plasmodium falciparum (unfortunately photography is not allowed). The forensics museum was delightfully morbid and contained a variety of anatomical specimens, crime scene evidence, and mummified bodies of convicts. A special exhibit was devoted to tsunami victim treatment and forensics, including detailed models of septic wounds and the debridement process.That night, after our Lumpini Park runs, we braved the dirty old man/bar girl area one street over from our hotel to find the nam kao tod lady (sadly absent). The scene was surreal - lady boys and bar girls feigning interest in drunk, unattractive (mostly white) men while Muslim families paid money to feed the captive elephants in front of the massage parlors.

The following morning we caught an early flight to Ubon Ratchathani, then caught a bus to the sleepy Thai/Laos border town of Mukdahan. Our spacious hotel room at the newish Submukdahan Grand Hotel was a steal at 500 baht. We lucked out in that our visit coincided with Mukdahan's Red Cross festival. We walked out of our hotel to scores of teenagers performing Thai traditional dances accompanied by a light show, fog machine, and bubbles. The night market was brimming with vendors and behind it was a carnival with rides, a shooting (as in 0.22 caliber) range, lounge singers, and a flashy, Sparkle Motionesque talent contest.

The next morning we left for Savannakhet , Laos, just across the Mekong. From Savannakhet we were blessed with the experience of being one of 19 passengers + 1 driver crammed into a 10 seater van. After a grueling (yet comical) 2 hours we arrived at our destination in Tha Khaek. Our room at the Tha Khaek Travel Lodge was huge, with a palatial bathroom as big as some of our prior hotel rooms. We had come to Tha Khaek like most people to ride "The Loop", a popular 3-4 day motorcycle street/dirt tour popularized in Lonely Planet. Initially I thought we should allocate 2 days for the trip, but after reading the trip reports I thought it would be an entertaining challenge to try and do the 360 km ride in a day. In the hotel log book I read one guy's account of finishing the ride in just under 24 hours, which included an overnight stay en route, but could find no other sub-24 hour entries. We were unsuccessful in finding anything around town better than the usual crappy 100cc Chinese scooters. At least they appeared to start within the first minute most of the time, unlike our Enfields. We attempted to get to sleep early, not an easy task with Laotian lounge music blaring from the bar down the road.

We set out just before 6 am with food, water, a pump, and a tool kit. We had left our riding gear with the exception of our helmets at our hotel in Bangkok, so I donned multiple layers to stay warm. The sun was just rising over the karst towers as we left town. We made good time on the first ~40 km of paved roadway and graded dirt road. On the bumps our bikes rattled like the cheap plastic pieces of scrap they were. We made a brief detour through Ban Oudomsok after missing a turn. The next ~40 km held more dusty graded road. At one point we ended up behind a guy in civilian clothing sporting an AK-47. I decided not to try and pass. Thankfully he turned off after a few kilometers.

After the Ban Tha Long bridge we encountered a long line of trucks. Having recently attending Indian driving school we cruised to the front, hoping to squeeze through on the shoulder. A tree had fallen across the road and a road crew of ~5 people was busy clearing a path through the thick branches. Amazingly, there were at least 40 people on both sides standing around watching. I was timing our Loop attempt, so I decided to help out to get us moving again. Finally a few other bystanders pitched in and a path was cleared. This set us back by an hour. I tried to make up time on the next, more technical section of road and dumped my not so off-road machine twice, breaking off a mirror on the second spill.

Eventually we made it back onto the pavement around Lak Sao and I got replacement mirrors for 15,000 kip (~$1.75), including installation. It was ~1 pm and we knew we had 200 km to go, so unless we encountered some major construction of mechanical failure we would be back in Tha Khaek well before dark. The next section of road was spectacular as we wove through limestone towers dripping with lush vegetation. We wondered whether the huge limestone walls held any climbing route potential. The journey back went swiftly, or rather as swiftly as possible on our underpowered bikes which were lucky to hit 90 km/h on the downhills. Jascha had some difficulties in keeping up with me on a scooter made for 100 lb Asians, not 200+ lb Americans, but we rolled into the guesthouse together 9 hours and 48 minutes after we started. We headed to Fountain Square and treated ourselves to some well-earned nam kao (spicy sausage filled with ground pork, rice and glass noodles served with shredded cabbage, fresh herbs, and piquant dressing) and a crepe-like dessert made from a pan fried thin dough wrapped around a scrambled egg, topped with sweetened condensed milk and banana slices.


matt said...

brilliant adventure! what you would have given for a 400cc dirt bike...
I'm totally in love with my Honda XR. Have been having fun with the learning curve that begins at zero and now I can ride single track at the base of the Whites in 2nd gear - woohoo!

Andrew said...


That was me who did the loop in 24 hours. I didn't go to the big cave though. I got to the end of the road and decided not to pay the big bucks....maybe a mistake, but no regrets.

Tristan said...

wow, looks like we've been to a lot of the same places.