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Laos on Two Wheels

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Meghan Kieffer of Baltimore is the latest contributor to our Your Vacation in Lights feature, in which we invite Travel section readers to share the dish about their recent trips. It's a big, confusing travel world out there, and you can help your fellow travelers navigate it. Your hot tip can be the next guy's day-maker; your rip-off restaurant, the next family's near-miss. To file your own trip report -- and win a digital camera -- see the fine print below.

THE TRIP: A 19-day cycling trip through northwest Laos.

WHO WENT: Six women and four men, including people from the D.C. area, Illinois, Minnesota and New York City.

WHEN: March 2005

WHY: To experience a country that is still barely touched by tourism, and enjoy the outdoors. I have always wanted to visit Southeast Asia, and decided that cycling would be a great way to see and experience the country up close.

I WAS IMPRESSED . . . by the generosity and warm welcome of the people of Laos. Kids would run from three fields away to yell "Sabaidee" ("Hello") and wave as we pedaled by.

I was also impressed by how determined some of my fellow cyclists were to cycle every mile of the challenging terrain. Gwyn's longest bike ride prior to this had been a 35-mile ride in Rock Creek Park. Rachel had ridden to and from Mount Vernon a couple of times. Dan, who bought his bike two weeks before the trip, biked around Central Park in Manhattan as preparation. Molly borrowed her mom's bike and had to be shown how to use the gears. They each cycled the entire 500 miles of this trip.

IT MADE IT ALL WORTH IT . . . when we crested the surreal mountains outside Kasi. I have seen mountains all over the United States and Europe, but I have never seen mountains like these before. They were partially shrouded in clouds, craggy and extremely green. The scene seemed primordial and gave me goose bumps. I got off my bike and stared at those mountains for a long time.

MOST EMBARRASSING MOMENT: Bathing in my bikini in the river. One afternoon, in the village of Ban Faen, we wanted to clean up after a hard day's ride, so we all went with the villagers to the river. No one told us that women were supposed to wear sarongs. We figured it out after three-fourths of the villagers positioned themselves for better observation angles.

FAVORITE CITY: Luang Prabang, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is dramatically situated among mountains at the confluence of the Mekong and Khan rivers. In the middle of town is Mount Phousi, with 328 steps leading to a 200-year-old wat. From there, you can see both rivers flowing through the valleys of the surrounding mountains. At sunset, the sun glinted orange on the rivers and soundless boats created ripples on the water.

WORST/BEST THING: Riding in the rain in the mountains, then arriving at a guesthouse and having a bucket of hot water provided for my "shower." I never knew what a pleasure a bucket of hot water could be!

FAVORITE STREET SCENE: Scores of saffron-robed monks filing out of the monasteries to make their way barefoot through the streets of Luang Prabang, bearing gold-topped wooden alms bowls. Along the route, locals waited to present food to the monks, thereby earning merit by performing this good deed. The monks in their robes created a hypnotic swirl of orange in the soft morning light.

FAVORITE MEAL: The fresh fish served by a floating restaurant in Na Nam. The fish are kept in cages under the restaurant and cooked over a wood fire. Each fish is about 18 inches long and you get the whole thing -- tender, flaky and slightly sweet. I have absolutely no idea what kind of fish it was.

MOST INTERESTING CULTURAL EXCHANGE: A ceremonial dinner with village elders. We did not share knowledge of more than a couple spoken words, but it worked. We loved it and so did they. After dinner our group was invited to sing, and we produced several rounds of "Frere Jacques," which brought the house down.

GREATEST BARGAIN: $5 hour-long massages. I got as many as I could.

FAVORITE SOUVENIR: Beautiful hand-woven silk scarves.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Leaving my prized silk scarves in the Bangkok airport on the way home.

The Laos trip is available from Far and Away Cycling in Arlington for $995 per person, not including airfare. Details: 571-275-2814, www.farandawaycycling.com.

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