The world is cloaked in quiet darkness as we roll out of bed at 4AM. I haven't been up this early since my bakery days! While the rest of humanity sleeps, we wheel our bikes into the entryway of our motel; florescent bulbs flicker, illuminating the porch with a faint hum. There is a fleet of vehicles parked on the gravel lot in front of our building—sometime between now and when we went to bed at 7:30, this place filled nearly every vacancy.
Reveling in the coolness of our pre-dawn morning, we begin the task of finding water and food for breakfast. Only one shop in town is lit. Two women are up and about, their silhouettes moving here and there as they prepare their home-front restaurant for opening, arranging stacks of bowls, and setting out condiment trays featuring the standard array of fish, chili, soy and "Maggi" sauces.
While Tyler holds my bike, I walk up to the shop to ask about water. Though I am trying to say "water" in Lao, the busy ladies keep trying to give me milk. When all attempts to communicate fail, I grab a bottle of iced tea instead. Back at the bikes, Tyler and I deliberate about waiting for them to open officially for breakfast, but we decide to hit the road. We want to cover as much ground as possible before the sun comes out.
Under the sliver of a moon which presides over the still-dark sky, our legs spin round and round and round. It is a rare occasion that we find ourselves on the road (much less awake) this early, and what an invigorating change of pace it is. For us, cycling in the mid-day heat of springtime Laos is miserable drudgery, but oh how good it feels to be comfortable in the early morning chill, to feel the fresh, cool, breeze blowing in my face as we take to the road.
Insect noises we don't normally hear fill the air. Smoke rises, grey against black, from inside a humble bamboo hut; firelight slips through the widely-spaced slats that make up the wall, and for a moment, we catch a glimpse of a man putting a kettle on to boil. Then, we are gone, leaving the man in his hut is far behind us. The further we we pedal, the more lights keep flickering on, from distant fires to riverside bulbs.
With my gaze softly fixed on the horizon ahead, the skies above turn from dark gray to silver to a dull, murky steel color. Underneath it all, there are vague purplish undertones, and a slight green tinge too, a bit like a bruise.
A thousand tiny gnats and flies have woken up for the day. They swarm in the air, smacking into my face, getting lodged in the corners of my eyes. The onset of the buggy masses seems to mark the official start of morning; the dark and cool of the wee hours is used up, giving way to a lightness and the promise of a sun that will soon turn against us in a fiery rage.
We're coasting down a slight hill, completing our sixty-fifth kilometer of the day, just as the faintest hints of increasing heat begin to arrive. We're supposed to be stopping soon at a guest-house, sensibly quitting before it gets any hotter. Unfortunately, upon entering the village in which the hotel is purported to be, our intended lodging is nowhere to be found.
After taking a minute to regroup, we realize that we probably rode right past it, for we both seem remember seeing a dilapidated poster in the middle of nowhere advertising a room a few kilometers back. With a barely-recognizable sign, flanked by just a hut or two and a single roadside snack shop, we simply assumed it wasn't what we were looking for.
Realizing we've passed our destination, we both exchange a lazy grimace, thinking the same illogical thing: "We've come too far!" Turning back now would require two or three kilometers of riding at most, but for some reason we can't bear to reverse course. A quick look at the time seals the deal—it's only 9:30 in the morning!
We decide to continue another fifty kilometers to Thakek, rather than retrace two. I know we're going to be miserably overheated soon, but truth be told, neither of us particularly wants to sleep in a teeny little out of the way guest-house where we'll pass out on the bed, watching a fan twirl overhead, taking countless showers to keep cool before nightfall.
If we sprint, we can still make it to Thakek, a much larger city with hopefully plenty of hotels and food to choose from, before the afternoon heat really starts up. This sixty-five kilometer day is about to become a one-hundred-and-six kilometer race against the sun!
As waves of heat rise from the sticky, blistered pavement, my legs pound, churning hard against my pedals. Though I try to keep focused on my music and the friendly faces we pass, the heat is gaining strength. Keeping an average speed at around 20kph, we're working our butts off, in a race against the heat.
Every time I feel utterly exhausted from sprinting, right at the moment when I want to quit and melt into a puddle by the side of the road, I feel a spray of cooling water hit my face, and life is good again. Shocked and relieved, I quickly turn to thank Tyler, who is riding beside me, grinning. The people we pass might not understand why my riding partner is spewing mouthfuls of water all over me, but his gift of a few brief minutes of air-conditioning could not be more welcome.
After a good three additional hours of riding, it's officially afternoon and at last, the long, hot, haul is nearing its end. Closer and closer we go, approaching Thakek, until we roll up, exhausted, in the town center. It's so hot out here, we could fry an egg on the pavement. What follows is another overly-long-overly-hot hotel search, the relief of finally finding a nice place to settle in, and the usual reward of cold showers.
Our final destination of Thailand is visible just across the Mekong, but it will be a few days before we cross the river. For now, we're taking a rest day or two here before heading down to Savannakhet.