VIDEO: Tackling the Transfagarasan Highway: Transylvania, Romania

(This film is a complement to our last essay from the Transfagarasan Highway in Transylvania, a route made famous by the UK’s Top Gear. Stax shot the driving footage (GoPro Hero Black 3 and Canon 60D) and Beej shot much of the scenery with his trusty Lumix GH2. Edited by Stax, who found very cool music by Brooklyn/San Diego duo The Fucked Up Beat and Brooklyn/Los Angeles duo High Places (both used via the Free Music Archive fair use license and attributed accordingly). The video was fun to put together and made the (very) cold trip worth it. Watch below and if you like it, Subscribe to our Youtube channel to get all our new videos!

Taking on the Transfagarasan Highway: Transylvania, Romania

Story by BEEJ.
Photos by STAX.

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Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu pushed through construction of the Transfagarasan Highway in 1970.  By all accounts the construction was hellishly difficult and brutal. Legend said he was spooked by the Soviet invasion of the former Czechoslovakia and wanted to build a military route to head off any similar invasion by his “comrades” in Russia.

But more likely, Ceausescu wanted to add the conquering of an incredibly rugged mountain range in the independent region of Transylvania – an area often resistant to his 20-year autocracy – to his list of “achievements”.

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The country can point to the road as a success in at least one way: it brings thousands of motorheads from all around the world every year to Transilvania to race along the its wacky curves and hair-raising cliffside tunnels.

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The road calls adventure freaks like the Sirens called Odysseus (Stax and Beej would jointly be Odysseus in this scenario. And Carla and Megs, two adventurous Australian girls from the hostel in Sibiu, would be our trusty crewmates. Don’t worry, no one drowned. But at one point Beej did have be lashed to the hood.)

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This wasn ‘t the first time Megs and Carla tried to get away.
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They got pretty far, but we caught them every time.

We took a driving break for Megs and Carla to say hello to a wandering Romanian sheepdog on the side of the road, probably on a break from guarding his flock. These sheepdogs are massive and resemble small bears (I thought it was a Romanian brown bear from a distance).

 

Our ascent of the Fagaras pass ended at the summit of the road, Lake Balea (2046 meters or 6712 feet).

 

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Chilly Lake Balea

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At the lakeside we froze in high winds tinged with ice and just to warm our hands up,  scarfed down hot -off-the-fire balmos or mamaliga (not really sure which – there are tons of iterations of these traditional corn cakes in Romania).

The balmos were crazy filling – thick flame-roasted corn cakes, much like gooey polenta, with mountains of sour pasty sheep cheese pooled inside. The cheese was so strong, I could barely finish the thing.

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Roadside stands selling all things sheep-y across from Lake Balea

Along the way down we spied the towers of Poenari Citadel clinging to a rocky cliff high above the road. In this citadel in the 16th century, the real-life inspiration for Dracula (Prince Vlad Tepes, who ruled the South) actually lived for a time.

Now it’s a spectacularly crumbling ruin you can climb up to. Unfortunately due to time and being cold and one of our car-mates being sick with a migraine, we couldn’t hike to the top.  Next time, Vlad Dracul. Next time!

After a windy descent through autumn forests and across glacial streams, we reluctantly parted ways with the Transfagarasan Highway at the massive dam on Lake Vidraru – an appropriately scenic send-off to one of the most transcendent stretches of road I’ve ever driven.

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Beej investigates a waterfall by the side of the road.

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Lake Vidraru, where we parted ways with the Transfagarasan Highway.

 

 

 

 

Wedding Hunters!: From Wedding Hunt to Wedding Crash

Or, The Practice Wedding. Continued from the previous post!

by Stax. Photos by Stax.

Saturday arrived, so we gathered our gear – stripped down a little, as this would just be a practice run – and drove to Oncesti to have coffee with Bud at his guesthouse (Pensiunea Bud Mariana) before we crashed the wedding. As we drove into town, lines of cars on either side of the road and boisterous accordion music gave away the location, a small house near the top of the hill.

At Bud’s, we ask one more time: “Is it really okay if we crash the wedding?”

As every red-blooded American knows, weddings are for GUESTS via INVITATION ONLY.  You do not walk through someone’s backyard right behind their houses as a shortcut through the village (as people constantly do here) unless you want a visit from the cops, and you DO NOT crash weddings. Our American brains have difficulty comprehending that yes, it’s often perfectly all right for a foreigner to show up at the wedding of strangers in Maramures.

“Yes. Yes. Of course. It’s okay,” Bud reassures us. “People are very friendly here.”

Unfortunately Bud could not attend after all, so we’d be on our own for translators – hopefully there would be a teenager who wanted to practice their English there. We approached the wedding, striding purposefully toward the house to hide our anxiety. The sound of music and dancing grew louder. We were going to crash this wedding of complete strangers and worse, we were going to invade the proceedings with cameras and try to get some footage.

We stopped in front of the large wooden gate, next to a gaggle of young women who were dressed in a variety of very old and very new styles. Modern black dresses mixed with traditional sheepskin and woven wool vests over white puffy shirts, black and red skirts, tights and black furry boots. Some heads were bare, others covered in a colorful array of scarves.

The Women

Two older men in traditional garb stood, wobbling a bit with slight smiles on their faces, in front of the gate. One of the men brandished a giant bottle of tequila to pour shots for those just arriving.

“Is there a wedding happening? ” Ben asked one of the men n his inquisitive manner.

Before anyone could answer, a woman spied us from inside the gate. Her face lit up. She walked straight up to us and began to speak in rapid Spanish. From her gestures alone, we surmised her meaning: “Come inside, I’ll show you around!”

Her words hovered around my the language areas of my brain like hummingbirds, searching for flowers of meaning to pollenate. I struggled to snatch the different words. I hadn’t spoken Spanish since our trip to Spain and Morocco last year. My skills had been sitting in the dark and dusty parts of my brain and it was plainly obvious.

I tilted my head toward her and squinted my eyes a bit in concentration. With our powers combined, Beej and I deciphered that she was the sister of the groom and her name was Ileana. She grew up in Maramures, but she’d been living in Valencia, Spain, with two South American women – which is where she acquired the rapid-fire Spanish. While Ileana talked her father handed Beej the bottle of Tequila and urged both of us to take a deep swig. (Seriously, guys. Welcome to Romania.)

The groom’s father clutching his Tequila.

After the introductions, Ileana lead us past the revelers and into the house to show us the “traditional room” of the house. Many houses in the Maramures region have a room where they display large hand-crafted items – wool rugs, tapestries, and clothing – that the craftier women in the family hand-make. Ileana took down a particularly bright and colorful red vest and helped me put it on, gesturing for Beej to take a picture.

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Not me, but another woman wearing the special wedding vest.

I took note of a row of heavy blankets and hanging from the wall, arranged similar the way that fancy wrapping papers or bolts of fabric are arranged horizontally in a store. Ileana grasped a part of one and rubbed the wool between her fingers. “Mi madre,” Ileana looked at us. “Mi madre hizo la manta.”

Her mother made this.

She pointed to my camera and mimed taking pictures. “Fotos.”

I held up my camera. “I can take photos?” I asked.

“Yes. Yes.” She nodded her head vigorously and waved her hand around the room. “Cualquier cosa.”

Anything. People started to fill the small room. One of them, a younger cousin in his 20’s from the area of Alba Iulia pretty far south of here, had very good English. So Ileana appointed him our minder during the rest of the groom’s party.

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I know. It’s a dark picture. Sorry, guys.

At one point we were seated at a table outside behind the courtyard beside the musicians, who were playing up a storm. An older woman, explained to be the groom’s mother, came by with plates and pointed at the meat and bread on the table. The older women in the family tend to do a lot of the planning and cooking around the weddings, we are to find out.

Horincă was poured, of course, along with big bowls of ciorbă, a creamy and sour soup well stocked with chunks of of sheep and cow stomach lining (tripe) that Americans don’t normally eat.

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The mother of the groom. She gave us stomach lining.

Through talking to the cousin, we find that he was as lost as we were about some of the customs here.

“I am from another village in a different region,” he told us. “If anyone dressed like these people in my town, we would think he was crazy!”

The groom’s pre-party was winding down. Let me explain: before the wedding ceremony, the bride and groom have separate pre-parties where they eat, drink, dance and take pictures with their respective families. It’s kind of like a pre-game of opposing football teams, except the different teams will get married instead of pounding each other into the ground.

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The groom in the traditional room. It’s his party and he’ll smile if he wants to.

After this event, we were told, the groom’s party would drive a huge procession of cars about 20km to meet up in the bride’s town, Sighetu Marmatiel, to join with the bride’s side.

Now, it didn’t seem to us the safest proposition to be involved in this train of cars after the amounts of horinca we’d seen some of the guests drink. But with luck, the entire groom’s family would make it in one piece.

But even after this, the night wouldn’t be over. After carousing some more in Sighetu, the complete wedding party would drive east to somewhere in the mountains near Viseu de Sus – over 50km the opposite direction – to marry.

Anyway, we were pretty sure this was the plan, but we didn’t have much time to confirm because soon everyone was on the move up the street in a large procession. They were only headed to their cars; but what a grand parade they were.

Musicians played near the front and set the beat, while at the head of the pack, a guy we later identified as the the groom’s best man twirled and tossed a big colorful flag into the air like a majorette of a marching band. Cars arriving in town had to weave around the huge procession to pass through. At one point, the crowd moved to the side as a mammoth tour bus edged past them. As he passed, the bus driver honked enthusiastically at the groom’s party below while all the passengers stood, waved and cheered.

Though we didn’t get a chance to follow the rest of the wedding that night – this was practice for the main event later in the month – we managed to get some photos of the party.

Parade Time

Walking Guests

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Music time accordion to this guy. (Haha! Get it!)
Music time accordion to this guy. (Haha! Get it?)

Groomsmen

Stay tuned for Part Three!

Read Our “Nomad is Beautiful” Interview!

Ivana and Gianni,  from the great digital nomad travel website Nomad is Beautful , interviewed us about our travels, our web series project and everything under the sun for their series Love on the Road ! We were thrilled to be featured and show off some of our photography, and Ivana’s questions were really thoughtful.  To read the interview click here!

P.S. And for those who have somehow missed it, here is our teaser trailer for our currently crowdfunding webseries, “I Do: A Wedding of Cultures”:

VIDEO: OUR KICKSTARTER PAGE IS LIVE (HUZZAH!)

At long last the Kickstarter campaign to fund  “I Do: A Wedding of Cultures” is live! We’re pretty excited if you can’t tell. We have 30 days to get backed to the tune of $7000 for the web series. Check out our Kickstarter Video below:
https://vimeo.com/132988361

Or if you’re having trouble with the Vimeo player (mobile units sometimes do) here’s the Youtube link:

And if it sounds interesting to you, please check out/read/recommend our Kickstarter Page to friends (where we have a ton more detail and info about it). Also, gaze upon the sweet, sweet rewards that await backers when we’re funded. Click the Kickstarter Logo below to have your mind blown!

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Even if you can’t back us with a pledge (we have $1, 5, 10 and up), of course we’d love you to spread the word through the WP community or like and follow this site. Can’t wait for the challenges that await us over the next 30 days!

Battambang, Cambodia – “The Bong”

I’ve done the charming city of Battambang an injustice with the focus on horrible roads and personal injuries. Experiences here need not be confined to falling off motorbikes (not recommended) or sampling health care options (limited). There are some great places to see in Cambodia’s second city.

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A protective statue along the Sangker Riverside Park. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer

Battambang’s recent history is not a glorious one. After spending hundreds of years (on and off) as a colony of the Siamese Kingdom, French colonial treaties with Thailand restored the Battambang and Pailin regions back to Cambodia just in time for two World wars, Japanese occupation, the disastrous American incursion, and finally the Khmer Rouge regime and subsequent Vietnamese occupation (Battambang to France- thanks a yahoo)

Battambang’s fertile countryside became a particular stronghold of the Khmer Rouge regime, who cleared out the city and forced most people to work in rice fields. Its agricultural riches (it’s still Cambodia’s wealthiest province) and military strength made it one of the last major regions the Vietnamese secured in 1979. In the people’s rush to move on from four years of sheer terror, the house never really got clean.

We hear tell from expats that former regime honchos still retire under the radar, occupying the most spacious estates and lucrative rice-growing farmland in the surrounding villages, riches looted from the bourgeoisie intact.

Stax enjoys the view of Wat Piphetthearam in the middle of Battambang City. The Wat was an execution site and prison during the Khmer Rouge era and has now been restored to a serene park and Buddhist center of refuge.
Stax enjoys the view of Wat Piphetthearam in the middle of Battambang City. The Wat was an execution site and prison during the Khmer Rouge era and has now been restored to a serene park and Buddhist center of refuge.

Discerning the truth behind these tales would require treading dangerous waters – journalists, even foreign ones, are heavily persecuted here – so we aren’t exactly knocking on doors in villages to get comment. But it is a widespread belief.

More of the Battambang story unfolds through rumor and hearsay. We meet an ex-U.S. army mine-hunter from Denver who trains groups of local military (and jungle rats) to sniff out unexploded ordinance (UXO) for a Japanese non-profit. He regales us with incredible tales of run-ins with rebel groups that roam jungles and mountains west of the city.

Unique statuary restored at the park grounds, Wat Pithetthearam, Battambang City. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer
Unique statuary restored at the park grounds, Wat Pithetthearam, Battambang City. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer

Reduced from the glory days of fomenting statewide revolution to (these days) shitting in the jungle, running drugs and (the UXO-hunter insists) kidnapping tourists for ransom, the groups can still create havoc..

He vividly describes being trapped on a military truck departing Battambang during the 2013 elections as a five-hour firefight raged between a military convoy and groups who had materialized out of the countryside  to – as he puts it – “kidnap foreigners”. (I cannot find reports to verify the event he described, other than to confirm that the main opposition party contested elections nationwide).

But if this kind of unrest really occurs, we see no sign of it. In spite of the holiday this weekend, the town feels subdued. Positively enlightened, in fact.

Phnom Sampeau, Cambodia – An Essay in Pictures and Video

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These figures represent about how Stax and I felt the day after our crash. Image (c) 2014 Stacy Libokmeto

What do they say about motorbikes? You’ve gotta get back on them? Or is that horses?

Even after all our failed attempts to reach Wat Banan, Stax and I aren’t willing to let ourselves be deterred by a minor life-threatening crash or two. No way, not us. We hop directly back on the motorbike the very next day, injuries and all, to explore the mountain realm of Phnom Sampeau.

A long and steep climb by motorbike – the same one we crashed the day before – up precarious cement pathways choked with weeds and potholes brings us finally to the top of this large block of limestone that dominates the view of the countryside just west of Battambang.

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Beej and the Suzuki at the top of Phnom Sampeau. Image (c) 2014 Stacy Libokmeto

Wat Phnom Sampeau, meanwhile, is among the most spectacular- and peculiar – sites we will encounter in Cambodia. From the rocky peak, the golden spires of the Wat gleam over sheer limestone cliffs and caves, while to the north, Tiger Mountain rears up out of the flat ricelands and afternoon field smoke like some ghostly green monster rising out of a lake.

I should mention, we never would have found the narrow route to this viewpoint without the impromptu guidance of a monkey-like 9 year old kid with a dirty baseball cap named Than who starts walking alongside us as we approach the Wat. At first we don’t understand where he is trying to guide us. The narrow path he walks toward appears to simply dead-end at a sheer cliff.

He flashes us a look of annoyance, pointing again – these dumb Farang and their petty fears! – and we decide what the hey? Good thing. Along the cliff’s edge is a stony path leading to a steep wooden ladder someone has nailed into a gap in the limestone. Following the scrawny kid, who’s scrambled up and down the ladder three times already to see what’s taking us so long, we squeeze our way through the gap and scramble over the sharp rocks to a stunning overlook.

Tiger Mountain from atop Phnom Sampeau. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer
Tiger Mountain from the peak of Phnom Sampeau. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer
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The golden spires of Wat Phnom Sampeau from the peak. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer

The kid gets bored waiting for us to marvel at the view and clambers down back to the Wat with his buddies, but not before signaling them of his whereabouts.

Inside Wat Phnom Sampeau, the scenes from the Buddha’s life and ministry are presented in absurdly vivid, almost Marvel comic-book style.

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The ceiling frescoes of Wat Phnom Sampeau. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer
The Buddha compassionately observes the stages of a man's life - with a peculiarly morbid emphasis on the after-death stages! Photo (c) Benjamin J Spencer 2014
death2 The Buddha compassionately observes the stages of a man’s life – with a peculiarly morbid emphasis on the after-death stages! Photo (c) Benjamin J Spencer 2014

Outside the Wat lies a steaming primary deciduous forest – one of the only primary stands we will see in logging-ravaged Cambodia – filled with mischievous monkeys, barefoot children who run about the temples as if they live there, and colorful flora. flowerphnomsampeau copy We finally head down for the day with the sun sinking below the haze. But before we can turn onto the highway back to Battambang, one more surprise awaits us. Two million bats are poised to fly out of the pitch-black caverns deep below Phnom Sampeau and out into the sky to feed in a nightly ritual. (Sorry, cell phone video so it’s not great quality).

Battambang, Cambodia – The “Tourist Clinic”

by Beej.

The Battambang tourist clinic is casual to say the least. The woman at the outdoor check-in counter is about to leave for the day as we pull up to the window on our scraped-up motorbike, which held up fine on our 25km journey back from the crash site. The woman kindly sticks around to show us in.

Inside the clinic sits one examination bed and a couple of trays of supplies in a single undecorated room the size of a large apartment, with a small dim bathroom attached.

The doctor, middle-aged, bored-looking and jowly in faded green scrubs, saunters over after a few long minutes (even though there is no one else around to examine) and glances at Stax’ wounds. He immediately assesses the cause of the injuries, having of course seen them a thousand times.

He then decides to act out the motion of falling over on a motorbike. This causes ripples of laughter in the two male assistants beside him. We are in no laughing mood after our long dusty ride, but I try to crack a smile. You don’t want to piss off your doctor.

He instructs Stax to go into the restroom and clean out her gravel and dirt-strewn wounds, then sits back with his feet up. The two assistants, so similar they could be brothers, tap on their Samsung phones.

Since extensive areas of Stax’ knee and arms remain raw and painful with embedded gravel and dirt, I assume the good doctor knows that a thorough self-cleaning will take a while. The good doctor doesn’t see it that way and makes sure I know it. Every few minutes he exaggeratedly checks the clock on the wall -yup, still 4:30 – gives me a look – why don’t you go and get your woman moving so we can wrap this up? – and gestures toward the bathroom.

Maybe his social schedule is jam-packed. Maybe after he’s done being a doctor for the day he transforms into a genteel man about Battambang town, highly sought after playboy and jetsetting man of fashion, a man to see and be seen with. Who knows? But his impatience is highly annoying.

After Stax comes out he plops her down and checks her knee. Nope, no breaks. Then we must sign a statement promising not to blame the tourist clinic if there are any adverse reactions so that the the assistants can spray a bit of antiseptic and antibacterial and wrap her knee and elbow with gauze. That’s the whole checkup.

Amazingly, the office woman who had been about to leave earlier is still there. She has waited at least a half hour past her shift to make sure we can finish up and pay. The visit, all the supplies and medical examination has cost all of $5.00 US – about what a doctor in the United States would charge you just to wait in line.

Then as we are pulling out of the driveway to head back to our guesthouse, the woman even turns her motorbike around and asks if we need directions, offering to let us follow her. Though we know the way back easily, her seemingly genuine concern and care lifts up what has been a pretty dismal day so far.

We’re exhausted and hungry and Stax’ knee is throbbing when we finally pull into the large driveway at Here Be Dragons, our Battambang home. The two smart-aleck expat bartenders – are there any other kind? – are unsurprised at our wreck story.

The guy tells me that during the Khmer New Year week there are usually at least one or two fatal crashes a day in the countryside as Cambodians are rushing from the cities en masse, on unbelievably terrible roads, to be in their home villages for the holiday. Even as Stax is examining her grevious-looking wounds in the mirror we have to count ourselves pretty lucky. It could have been much worse.

NEXT UP: A TRIP UP PHNOM SAMPEAU IN PICTURES AND MOTION!

Battambang, Cambodia: The Wreck, Part II!

Battambang, Cambodia: The Wreck, Part II

by Stax

Stax describes the moment and aftermath of a teensy accident the Misadventurists had while attempting to reach Wat Banan (AGAIN)!. Reblogged from Stax

Gypsy. Tramp. Thief.

I have a pretty good memory. I don’t forget many things nor do I lose [many] items. But there is one second in my life that is gone, a fluttering moment in time that my mind could not, until recently, recall. Let me try to capture it.

Beej and I are driving down a rural Cambodian road on a rented motorbike, wind whipping through my hair, sun shining bright above us, trees swaying in the wind, birds singing. Then – A lost, weightless moment like a skipped frame in an old 16mm film –  we are sideways on the ground, skidding at 30km per hour across rough gravel and dirt on the edge of the road.

Later I manage to piece together the fragments. A monstrous white Toyota F150 (250? 350? – the one with four wheels in back) passes us extremely close on the left, so close that my…

View original post 933 more words

Battambang, Cambodia: The Wreck, Part One

by Beej and Stax

The wreck happens during our third attempt in three days to reach Wat Banan, a five-towered hillside Buddhist temple thirty kilometers west of Battambang.

We have heard from other travelers to expect a steep and exhausting climb in the 100 degree heat and humidity to the top of the temple once we arrive. The reward, though, will be a spectacular view from the top – a tableau of steaming far-below fields stretching all the way to the Cardamom Mountains in the south and the Thai border to the northwest.

On our first attempt to reach Banan, we went the wrong way and found ourselves lost among a maze of shacks and muddy dirt roads. Par for the course in Cambodia, on the map it just looked like we simply needed to follow the river.

“This way. This way,” cried an older male.

He got up from his chair on the side of the dirt road we were struggling down. It was a terrible road, but it was a road we had hoped (since it followed the river) would eventually cut across to the paved Wat Banan route. Now we were sure it was a dead end.

One of the guy’s arm waved while the other held a beer can. He pointed down toward a smaller narrow path that cut off to the right.

We looked at each other. Here we were, two obvious foreigners driving without a guide through a tiny village away from populated areas, and a strange man appears, pointing us toward a lone footpath leading into a field with lots of tree cover. It looks like it just wanders off into the jungle. Should we be trusting this guy? We’ve heard a lot about scams and to be wary of strangers, especially in this province where the Khmer Rouge had so recently been top dog.

Suddenly, a few more guys from the village appear. They all start pointing in the same direction.

So we find ourselves off-roading the motorbike through the trees and across the large field, despite dire warnings from locals to avoid makeshift trails in small villages outside of Battambang. The reason? These fields quite often are littered with buried, unexploded American shells and mines, from back in the day when America believed the greatest threat to the free world was from a few thousand subsistence-level farmers with no running water in the rural backwaters of Southeast Asia, and so set about dropping more mines and bombs on Cambodia in just several months than they did throughout the whole theater of World War II.

These unexploded ordinance explode on the daily – it’s so common, we were told nobody even looks up when a distant mine explosion is heard – and kill or maim whoever happens to be in the vicinity. Luckily it wasn’t our day to die. And of course the villagers meant well and were correct. After holding our breaths across the field, we finally reached the main road.

But we had started out late as it was. We still had over 30 km to ride, our bike peaked at 40 km/hr and the sun was sinking below the horizon. Visibility even without our busted right headlight (that’s what kind of motorbike $4 a day gets you) would be nil on our long ride back, and people were driving more idiotically than usual due to the busy Khmer New Year holiday. So we decided to scrap the plan for the day.

The next day we started out fresh, ready to reach Wat Banan by the early afternoon. In town, the sky was blue, birds tweeted, what have you. But immediately outside the city, a fell wind blew. Huge black and green clouds massed, taking up the entire southern skyline, and mean-looking streaks of lightning snaked out along the horizon to the south, just about where our destination lay. It was like gazing into the gloom of Mordor from the top of Minas Tirith.

“It’ll blow over”, I thought, and we started out. But it didn’t blow over. Halfway to the temple and lightning struck all around us, wind gusts threatened to dislodge us from the bike altogether, and thunder clapped so loud and constant we hardly heard the engine. Most ominously, other motorbikes were few and far between. Finally we had to turn back.

I’ll admit I was a bit discouraged by this point. But I can be stubborn to the point of idiocy. We would reach this Wat, no matter wat! And the next morning, the sun shines and the birds sing and… oh man, this is our day! Or so I think.

To Be Continued