Yes, I am four months late. But I will squeeze this one in as I prepare the next blog from our recent trip to Spain.
Riki’s family has a place in Guarda, in the Romansh speaking part of Switzerland. That’s the fourth language of Switzerland, which originates from Latin. Yes, a country this small has four official languages, though only something like 30,000 people still speak Romansh and even that has different dialects. For me, Chalandamarz is basically Swiss Groundhog Day, but a month later. And instead of a groundhog, there are a bunch of kids running around with cow bells around their necks to scare away winter. But that’s something special to Guarda. We ventured to the neighboring town to go sledding and check out their festivities and were less than pleasantly surprised at the antics they got up to. In Ftan, we encountered young adults whacking each other on the backs with inflated pigs bladders. A far cry from Groundhog Day, where we just rouse a small sleeping mammal from his quiet slumber.
But first we went sledding on old-school little wooden sleds on 20 minute long runs. My first and only Swiss Alpine sporting adventure thus far.
When we ventured into Ftan after sledding, we were expecting a kids festival, complete with confetti and maybe some Alpine music. But what we witnessed was not even close to that. The kids festival had occurred earlier in the morning and we were there to witness the young adults version. Like I said, pigs bladders.
All in all, the festival in Ftan left me with a bad taste in my mouth. And not because any of the pig intestines got in there, though it was unavoidably on our boots. It was more the cringing/jolting feeling every time someone wound up their arm to smack the inflated bladders at full force into their neighbor’s back. That, was not my cup of tea.
Luckily, the festival in Guarda is much more tame and friendly. We woke up early, donned all of our winter clothes and trudged out into the village to watch the local children ring giant bells and walk around all the fountains chasing away winter. It was more picturesque as well.
We arrived in Lombok pretty late at night and had to take a taxi over an hour north to the coastal town of Senggigi, a touristy area closer to the jumping off point for our next diving expedition. The price, less than $20. The reason we are in Asia. Everything is much cheaper. We were trying to calculate what that kind of taxi would cost in Zurich. Probably more than the $100 we spent on two plane tickets.
The next day, Riki got it in his head that he would like to learn to surf. And surf he did. He was able to get up on the third try. The area was over some reefs, but it was a good place to learn, as the waves were small so you wouldn’t get pummeled or smashed against the reefs.
We took the public ferry out to Gili Trawangan the next day, where we had scheduled our Advanced Open Water diving course. This is the most popular of the three islands in the area, so it has the most options for accommodation and food. Not our normal style, but the dive company was here and since it is the low season, it wasn’t too crowded.
An unfortunate thing about Gili Trawangan (for Riki) is that there are no motorized vehicles or dogs. While that sounds lovely in theory, he’s allergic to the horses that pull the numerous carts of people and goods around the island. Oh, and much to my delight, the island is overrun with cats, who lounge unpestered by their canine counterparts. So we waited a day for his congestion to clear before diving.
We walked around the island, which is only a few hours distance, and up to a lookout point. The view was amazing, with crystal clear water and tons of boats. Of course, on the way down, we got lost and ended up following a herd of cows back to town. That evening, we went to a Swedish place and Riki ordered a meatball sandwich with gravy. When it arrived, the meatballs were mysteriously missing, but the gravy was bright pink. How can you forget the Swedish meatballs?
We spent the next two days doing 5 dives to complete our course. We achieved perfect buoyancy, navigation and a night dive on the first day. We spotted a reef octopus that was puffing and changing from brown to white and back to brown, possibly as a warning to us. I wish we had a video of it. The night dive, which was on a wreck had incredibly strong currents and was rather terrifying. Besides the small light from your torch, you are in the middle of a pitch black ocean, with who knows what lurking just out of sight. There was not a whole lot of life, but the redeeming part was spotting a massive turtle swimming very close and then away. We were also able to turn off our torches for a moment and experience the green phosphorescent plankton swirling around us. As we ascended we were greeted by hundreds of gooey, yet spiky worm-like creatures attracted to our lights. I was quite worried they were getting stuck in my hair. The boat crew and our instructor had never seen anything like them before.
Our second day, we completed a deep dive (30m) and a fish identification dive. We were able to bring a camera to take pictures and identify the fish later using a book. We spotted another octopus and tons of turtles. We were even able to see two turtles surface and return, which they don’t do very often. They are incredibly majestic creatures.
I was having some ear problems, so we decided not to stick around and booked a flight to Labuan Bajo, Flores to see the Komodo dragons in their natural habitat. We opted to fly, though it was $78 each plus $5 in baggage fees, as the alternative was either a 24 hour bus/ferry combo or a 4 day boat ride with a history of capsizing. Plus, we were looking forward to some amazing views.
Thakhek is a small town on the Mekong River with a border crossing to Thailand. There’s not much going on here, but it seems to be a base for people doing the ‘Thakhek Loop,’ like us, and for a large cave. Our plan included the loop, a 400+ km (250+ miles) tour through incredible karsts with stops along the way with breathtaking scenery and caves.
We arrived by bus from Vientiane (about 5 hours) and wandered town to find a hostel. Slim pickings here as there are only a few roads and many of the guesthouses don’t really look open. We spent the next day walking the town. The whole town. Which wasn’t tough. Only took a few hours. There’s a small market and a riverfront. We reserved our motorbikes that evening and packed our small bags with just enough stuff for our four day trip.
We set out around 10 am, after running some errands around town and eating breakfast. First stop, Xieng Liab cave. Only about ten minutes outside of town, we pulled over at a sign pointing down a tiny dirt path. A local tried to offer his guidance, but we declined and walked about 10 minutes into the woods. A huge opening in the vertical karst greeted us and we spent the next ten minutes climbing over rocks to get a good view of the inside.
Then we headed a bit down the road and found the Falang watering hole (means foreigner). The water was beautiful and enticing, but a bit cold for our taste.
As the road turned more rural, we came across incredible flooded forests, as this area was purposely flooded for a hydropower project. Sixteen villages were relocated. The locals were given bigger and “better” houses and moved just out of the flooded area. 95% of the power is sold to Thailand. All this we learned when we encountered the dam’s visitor center and a man working there who has the best English we’d found in awhile. He was very pleased to meet some Americans, as his English teacher when he was a monk was American.
We ended our first day at a guesthouse that caters to most of the people doing the motorbike loop. They had a bonfire all evening, a cute puppy and a delicious BBQ buffet for the ten or so guests.
This is the day we had heard was a bit difficult. The road turns to dirt about 20 km from where we stayed (though they are working on paving it, so this number is ever increasing). We stocked up on gas, which is kept in liter bottles and topped off by the local women, occasionally with a child or two on hip or in tow.
The road wasn’t as bad as we had thought, but we went pretty slow. We had seen some rough cases of road rash back in town and a motorbike that came back rather wrecked with its passenger still in the hospital. The scenery was breathtaking as we descended the hills.
Having passed the worst part of the road, we made our way through a larger town and onto an area of the map where there was supposed to be a cool spring. This cool spring eluded us (and most people we spoke to as well), but we found some amazing views off little dirt roads in the same general vicinity.
We tried almost every promising road off the main road to find these cool springs. It was at the end of one of these little dirt roads that I vowed to change this blog name to “The cow came out of nowhere” when, well, the cow came out of nowhere. A little road rash, some bruises and a lot of dust later, I was back on the bike, but done looking for cool springs. The cow looked at me like she’d never seen such a pale person on a motorbike before, and maybe she hadn’t.
This was my favorite day of the loop. We had stayed in a town at the end of a 40 km road to Konglor Cave. We could probably have made it all the way to the cave on day 2, but after the cow incident, I was ready to be off the bike. The 40 km to the cave is completely flat with karsts on either side. People were farming the land on either side of the road and there was hardly any traffic. We passed through quite a few little villages, where the children yelled and waved hello.
We stopped for brunch right outside the cave and Riki changed his camera lens to the fish eye. Hence, these two gems.
At Konglor cave, you hire a boat (max three people), are given a headlamp and then head for the entrance. We had a driver and a guy in the front with a paddle and a cup. His job was the avoid the rocks and scoop water out of the ever flooded boat. We had to get out at one point and walk over the rocks because it was very shallow. During the wet season, this must be a very different place and we heard some days you can’t even go in because the water is too high.
7 kilometers later, you emerge at the end of a dirt road (presumably there is a village 4 km up the road). We spent 20 minutes walking around the area, though it was mostly just women hawking their scarves. Then we returned the way we had come.
We hopped back on our bikes and went the 40 kms back to the town we had stayed in the night before. Some people do the loop in 3 days, but with all the flat tires we heard about and the fear of driving at night with no streetlights, four days was definitely the way to go. There’s not much to do in Kuon Kham, but we found a viewpoint above the town with a great view of the mountains.
8 kms west of the town is a great spot to rest between all the curves and hills.
These cows were on their way home, but made a pit stop at the pharmacy and market to check out the goods in the trash cans.
This is the ‘boring’ day, or so we had heard. It’s 140 kms of mostly highway, which is flat and there is more traffic. Highway is a loose term though. We were passed by only a few cars and the scenery was still really nice. Lots of little towns and tons of children yelling and waving at you. We arrived back in Thakhek in time for a late lunch and checked back into our hotel.
We managed to be about 75% sure of the bus schedule to Vietnam, so we had one extra day to wait until we could catch the bus. Lucky for me, as I became very sick and was in no shape to get on a 9 hour bus that day.