Sitting on my bed in our room in the Phoa Khoun guesthouse, 2 single beds, both damp and musty, a tv that doesn’t work, curtains falling off the hangers, which are in turn falling off the wall. There’s a small cupboard in the corner, one mirror door from which Sally’s riding pants hang, our gear is spread out across the floor, and our cookset is drying on a small orange plastic chair that’s in front of the mirror wardrobe.
Tonight we cooked pasta for dinner.
Phoa Khoun is a tiny town at the intersection of two main roads in the north of Laos, about a three hour ride from Vientiane. There’s one pharmacy, two shops that sell mobile phones and a small produce market with maybe 15 stalls manned by smiling old ladies and children, selling tomatoes, peppers, garlic, ginger, onions, carrots, shallots, chilli, asian eggplant and another dozen vegetables i don’t know the names of.
Unless it’s getting dark and you need to stop to fix your brakes, there isn’t much reason to spend a night here, but there you go, so here we are. This is the type of town that we usually refer to as ‘Shitsville’ – a random nondescript place that we almost certainly wont remember the name of.
There’s no ATM in town, so after spending most of our cash on petrol, and half of the rest of it on this filthy room with a heavily leaking tap in the bathroom, we didn’t really have enough left for dinner and breakfast in the morning, but fortunately we usually carry enough food for one meal on the bike.
Our dinner tonight… Initial provisions:
Half a pack of fettuccine (purchased in Labuan Bajo, Flores, Indonesia about 9000km from here)
Olive oil (as above)
Salt (from home)
Dried chilli flakes (from home, grown with seeds we brought home from Myanmar in 2014)
While this would be enough for a basic pasta, we wanted more… so from one of the shops across from our room we acquired some garlic (5 tiny little cloves) and 3 small shallots. The shop lady refused to take any money for those.
Then from the market we bought 5 small tomatoes and 2 long green peppers for 25c.
If you’re reading this then you most likely know what to do with those ingredients, and can assume that it tasted reasonable. But to us it was heaven.
Sally is laying on her back on the bed next to mine, reading on her tablet, she’s wearing black pants she bought from Lu Lu Lemon, the black puffy jacket I bought her for Nepal and a headband she’s made out of a Helly Hansen neckwarmer by cutting it in half. Sally always looks stylish.
I’m wearing a pair of grey pants made from fast drying fabric, and a black puffy jacket that I bought for Nepal, and my woollen riding socks. I always look very practical.
The floor of our room is tiled with designs that look like parquetry, and the beds are dressed in white sheets, stained off white by time and no real effort to clean them. There are several pairs of old dirty thongs in the room with us, leading me to believe that someone usually occupies this room. I wonder where they’re sleeping tonight?
From outside I can hear a steady stream of traffic passing on the road, and from inside I can hear the leaking water in the bathroom, which reminds me of one of those indoor miniature bamboo fountains that were popular in the late 90’s.
Betsy is parked safely downstairs in the middle of the restaurant, which is also very dusty, and not surprisingly, very empty.
The walls are white, and you guessed it, stained. All the electrical wiring is exposed, the main circuit board is on the wall next to the TV. It has an urn plugged into it, which we were going to use to boil water to clean our cookset, but we ended up doing it in the shower instead. Sally held the shower head while I cleaned the pots using body wash, and a handful of paper towel as a scrubbing brush.
It was surprisingly affective.
As i mentioned earlier, i’m sitting on the bed writing this as there’s no desk. The wall i’m leaning on is for some reason really cold, so i’ve put the old brown bath towel that was in the room, over my shoulders – a bit like a superman cape, (but less stylish), which is insulating me from said cold. Sally tells me without telling me, that i look ridiculous
As i mentioned earlier, I always look very practical…
We passed the night by cooking then eating dinner on the small balcony, washing the cookset, and now reading/writing the blog.
You see this travel gig is not always historic towns or a cultural experience, sometimes it’s just a bowl of pasta on a dusty balcony in shitsville. Lovely.
I wake from a bizarre series of dreams, open my eyes and sit up a little. I’m still a little confused and trying to work out where I am… why are we on the floor? Who is walking around outside?
Eventually the memories of yesterday come flooding back and I lay down again, listening for the footsteps that woke me in the first place…
We are in a tiny village, home to maybe 100 people, a long way from anywhere in central Laos. Yesterday turned out to be a great day, but it could have gone either way. The road we were riding was supposed to take us up into the mountains in a circular loop, which ended at a famous place called Konglor Cave, where we were going to take a boat on a river that runs right through the middle of a mountain and out the other side. Then we’d planned to get back on the same boat, return under the mountain and continue our travels.
This plan seemed sound, until we went past a turnoff that said “Konglor Cave, 56km’, about 200km before we were expecting to see the turnoff. A quick look at the map confirmed that this particular road was not on it, but based on where we were, it might just be that this road could take us to the other opening of the same cave.
My adventurous side then reasoned that it may be possible to put the bike into a boat and bring it through the cave (under the mountain) and then ride out from the other side…
We discussed this option at length…
‘Sal can you hear me?’
‘sort of what?’
‘did you see that sign, shall we go check it out?”
‘we’ve got enough fuel to get there and back if it doesn’t work out, and it’s only 2:30 so we should have enough daylight too’
‘sure babe, I can’t hear you. whatever you think’
So we left the nice smooth sealed road and took the little turn off. I switched mode on the GPS to show me the elevation profile, and could see that we had a steep descent, followed by 40km of road that crossed lots of rivers. Hmmm. Rivers usually mean water and sand.
Sally hates sand.
‘hey babe are you sure you’re happy to do this?’ (He knew I wouldn’t be…)
‘what??? Babe i can’t hear you’ (I could hear him, I just knew I didnt really have choice)
‘ok then so long as you’re sure’ (deep breath… )
The descending dirt road was actually in reasonable condition for the most part, although there was some sand and deep fine bulldust to negotiate, but it was nothing we haven’t done before so we arrived in the valley below unscathed.
The first water crossing was quite short and muddy, and took me a little by surprised, so I had to just hit it straight, pretty fast, and hope it wasn’t too deep. Which it wasn’t. The next few were longer, either sandy bottom or gravel so quite easy, but the entry and exits on the steep river banks were quite tricky with two of us on the bike.
The routine usually goes like this…
Water approaching, I stand on the pegs, downshift to first or second gear and size it up as we approach, meanwhile Sally starts shouting
‘babe should i get off for this one?… babe???’
‘nah it’s ok’
‘babe i’d prefer to… ah shiiiit’
And out the other side we climb, water spraying everywhere, hissing off the hot exhaust, me smiling and Sal cursing. (oh, if there was a video camera on my face at times like this!)
There were a couple that looked a bit too difficult to ride two up, so Sal walked through those, and on one of the exits we had a little fall on the far bank, the bike slid a little and i slowed then stopped to get my balance, but unfortunately the ground was really carved up by truck tyres and I didn’t have any footing, so at a complete stop we went over.
It was quite funny (from my point of view), even before we’d hit the ground we were both asking the other if they are ok, “yeah I’m fine are you ok?”
And on it went. Eventually we arrived at the cave at 3:40pm, and asked one of the group of canoe operators whether they could carry a motorbike?
I was foolishly expecting a yes or no answer, but instead the group of 6 men got into a heated argument, which went on for several minutes before one of them walked over to me and scratched the number 30,000 into the dirt. (AUD$60).
It took me a second to understand, but before arguing the price I wanted to see the canoe. He pointed towards the river bank, which we walked over to and found 5 or ten canoes, large enough to carry 4 people each, but sure as hell not big enough for Betsy.
The problem of the exorbitant ferry fee solved, we decided to go through and back on one of the small canoes (leaving Betsy behind) and then spend the night in the previous village (where apparently one of the canoe guys had a homestay). The idea of taking a canoe on a river though a mountain sounds really interesting. The reality is that it’s completely dark so you cant see a fucking thing.
Fast forward two hours and we were back where we’d started, putting our riding suits back on ready to go find the homestay.
Unfortunately the canoe guy who’d offered it had now disappeared, so with dark rapidly approaching we were on our own. We went to the nearest village and asked some people (via mime) if there was somewhere we could sleep. Luckily one of them spoke some English so before we could try any more Charlie Chaplain he told us there was nowhere in that village and to try the next one.
At this stage Sal was getting a little tetchy, we hadn’t eaten lunch yet, it was getting dark, and it was looking like we’d have to ride back up 56km to the main road over rivers and through sand. I tried to stay calm, saying things like
‘dont worry babe, we’ll find a room for sure, and we have our mattresses and some food on the bike too, we’ll be fine’
In reality I was trying to work out what would be worse, riding back in the dark or staying here and sleeping under a bamboo shelter.
We turned back up the road and headed for the next village 2km away, and asked some kids if we could sleep in their village. On of them said ‘yes homestay’ and pointed further down the road. This was good news!! We couldn’t understand where the phantom homestay might be, so one of them got on a motorbike and took us there himself. Great Success!!
The canoe guy we’d met earlier (Ken) then appeared and pointed to his house, saying homestay, 50,000 for guesthouse, 100,000 for homestay. Again the communication was slow, but he was offering to cook dinner and breakfast for us, for an extra 50,000kip ($10).
We took the offer, and ate a dinner of instant noodles with egg and something green, sitting on the floor of his wooden home, surrounded by his children, who were watching The Flinstones, before heading to our room in another wooden hut across the road, to play cards and drink the beer he’d fetched for us earlier.
Now back where this story began, I stuck my head out of the room to see what the noise was, and found a small herd of water buffalo walking around the hut, snorting and whipping their tails around, really beautiful animals, even at 2am!
The ride back up to the sealed road the next day was much easier than on the way down, I could remember most of the water crossings and the sandy parts were all uphill which is easier to negotiate. From there it was a very long and boring 350km ride into Vientiane, but the beer on the Mekong when we arrived was heaven! Then it was Christmas…!
A couple of days ago we made it across the border from Cambodia to Laos.
We stamped out of Cambodia and were left with a bad taste in our mouth when the customs guy asked for a $2.80 bribe per person for the stamp in the passport…
‘$2.80 for a stamp?’
‘Erh…. Do we get a receipt?’
‘No, no receipt’
‘Well no receipt, no money we responded…’
He huffed and puffed a bit then thrust back our passports… Not a nice way to leave Cambodia where the people have been nothing but lovely.
So then we enter Laos. After paying $37 for a visa another immigration official asks for $2 for ‘overtime’ pay before stamping us in.
‘Overtime?!’ (at 3:30pm on a Friday)
‘Yes yes stamp $2 per person’
‘Ok… Do we get a receipt?’
‘No, no receipt’
‘Well, no receipt no money’
This time our passports were not thrust back at us but rather put to the side while passports for a bus load of people (who had arrived after us) were processed instead.
We weren’t quite sure what to do next, but took it as a positive sign that we weren’t sent back to Cambodia. Dean made some pretend phone calls to the tourist police which didn’t seem to bother them, so then we decided to play some cards and wait it out.
5 mins later we were being yelled at by the same guy…
‘No! No casino!’ Shouted the rubber stamp guy
‘Have you finished with our passports?’
‘We’re not gambling!’ we respond.
My hands were a bit shaky at this stage but we continued to play.
We had decided to give it about an hour of waiting before we would succumb to the corruption. We played 2 rounds of Scala Quaranta (the game we often play during long waits on buses and ferries) before Dean was called over and handed the passports stamped and ready to go – small victories!
I know it sounds stupid that we are arguing about $2, but it’s the principal of the matter. Corruption is one of the main obstacles facing developing countries, and the guys working in these places make far more money than most of the rest of the country. If they get $2 from every person who crossed the border, that little office is pocketing hundreds of dollars every day, for a country with an average wage of something like $5/day it’s insane. There’s also an element of pride I guess, just because we’re tourists it doesn’t mean we’re stupid! Overtime fees… at least invent a reasoable story!!
From there we spent a couple of nights in Four Thousand Islands – a group of islands scattered along the Mekong about 25km from the border.
It was very relaxing with not much to do except hang out on a hammock (and play with the six puppies that were living where we were staying :))))))))) I was in heaven!
We’re now riding a two day loop from Pakse towards the Vietnamese border and back.
More later xoxoL
Despite feeling pretty happy that the travel sickness of the buses and boats of the Philippines were behind me it was very sad to leave… Usually by the time we leave a country, there is a little part of me that feels ready to leave and excited for a new one but I didn’t feel this when it came to leaving the Philippines, this time I was planning our next visit instead.
Still, it was nice to come back to Cambodia 😊 the warmth and smiles of the Cambodian people exceed even those of the Philippines! After a couple of days in Siem Reap, Dean doing last minute bits to Betsy and me chopping my hair off 😳, we got back to reality and into our hot heavy bike gear 😁 a moment neither of us had been looking forward to! Saying goodbye to Peter and Sue, we headed north towards the Thai border. A short gentle day to start with which was lucky as we didn’t get away until 1pm – we’re clearly out of form!
Today we headed up to a temple on the Thai border. It was falling to bits but still very beautiful. Upon leaving we were asked to hurry along as there was some commotion. The locals were packing up shop and rushing away… It was quite strange but there seemed to be some military conflict with Thailand underway – I’m sure dean can add more details here…
Not much, we wanted to stop for a bit of food but all the vendors were closing up and literally running away, (and Cambodian’s NEVER run for anything!). The parking atttendants told us we’d have to eat somewhere else, and asked us to rush as there was ‘a problem with Thai military’. This temple is the subject of a dispute bewteen Thailand and Cambodia, hopefully no one was hurt this time.
Tonight we find ourselves in a town called Preah Vihear. Tomorrow, if we get our asses into gear, we will make it across to Laos.
Now it has been noted that Dean does more blog entries than me…. It has also been noted that there are a lot more photos of me on here than Dean (because he takes more photos) but I was quite disturbed that (despite hours spent laughing at tourists -predominantly Asians – taking photo upon photo of themselves), Dean had actually found the need to publish a selfie of himself sitting on a bus a few posts ago, so I’ve taken it upon myself to take and post more photos of him 😊
Sitting on the bus back to Cebu… Minivan actually, and quite a nice one, supposed to be faster than the bus, although he’s driving erratically in only first gear so who knows.
Sal is sitting next to me, head in her lap with eyes closed trying not to feel sick. She woke up this morning covered in red spots again. I read that in the final stages of dengue you get another itchy rash and then your whole body peels… She looked horrified when I passes on that little gem.
There’s bad 80’s pop playing on the stereo, a bit too loud for me, but the Fillipino’s love it. Karaoke is huge here, and everyone sings.
‘Touching the night… It feels like heaven…’ more synthesiser
Now we’ve stopped for some reason. Sal’s getting pissed off… It’s going to be a long day.
To get this far, we’ve already caught a small boat to a big boat to cross between islands, then another small boat to shore as it’s low tide so the big boat couldn’t come close to shore.
Van now stopped at the bus station. People routinely pile out and stand around outside as though we won’t be leaving for a while, then the driver ushers everyone back on, and we wait in the bus another ten mins before everyone gets off again. This seems to be normal.
Oooh we’re moving… Nope we’re not.
Anyway last time I wrote we had just missed the last boat to Malapasqua and so had to stay in Maya, the port town. Port towns are always a bit shit and this one was no exception.
Now we’re moving, but in the wrong direction.
So in Maya we got a cheap but still disproportionately crap room, full of bugs, no fan, 2 single beds. There wasn’t much to choose from so it had to do, but Sal had a fever of 39.5 so we insisted the guy who gave us the room should find a fan…
He initially tried to steal one from his auntie (after she fell asleep) but that didn’t wash, and the only other thing he could find was the type of fan people used to screw to a car dashboard, about 10cm in diameter… Brilliant.
‘Boom boom boom lets go back to my room, so we can do it all night and you can make me feel right…’
Next morning we headed to the port bleary eyed and waited for a boat. At which point it occurred to me to ask whether there were any ATM’s on the island…
‘No bank or ATM on Malapasqua’
‘OK so where is the closest one?’
‘It’s about 40km away in Bogo city. ‘ ‘WTF?? That will take a couple of hours!’
‘You take moto taxi, very fast 45mins, 200 pesos one way.’
I smelled a rat. A moto guy telling me I needed to travel 45mins to get to the nearest bank… I politely declined and went into the nearest store to ask the shopkeeper where I could find a bank.
‘In the next town, you take jeepni, 12 pesos, only 5 mins’
The moto guy hadn’t taken no for an answer, and followed me into the shop. At this point he started arguing with the shopkeeper, who then told me that he said the ATM down the road was broken, by the look on her face it was clear she didn’t believe him.
Flashdance is now playing… What a feeling!!
We laughed and said we’d try the close one first. 5 mins later with wallets full of pesos we were leaving the bank when the same moto guy rolled around the corner hoping the ATM was broken and we’d need to go further… Asshole.
We offered him a pittance to take us back to Maya, and then took a bus back.
But nothing is simple… at the port we found a boat ready to leave but were told that it was too late to get on that boat. We needed to wait for another. The boat wasn’t full by half, and was still tied on so we couldn’t see why we needed to wait another hour.
‘One night in Bangkok makes a hard man crumble…’
If you know Sal very well you’d know she doesn’t have a very long fuse, and by this stage things were getting quite heated.
‘What’s wrong with this boat?’ She demanded
‘Too late, you take next boat’
‘No no no this boat is just fine!!’ and she scrambled down a pile of slippery boulders and across the narrow 2m long plank of wood onto the boat.
I was laughing hard but followed trying not to fall over and took a seat wondering what would happen next.
With Sal still glaring at them, there was some discourse between the captain and the guy on the pier, ending with the captain shrugging his shoulders as if to say ‘they’re on now, what am I supposed to do?’
In the end the pier guy took half the fare and the captain got the rest.
Now playing ‘Boys boys boys, hoping for a food time…’
After all that Malapasqua was really great. We found accommodation quickly, beach front for $24, and lined up some diving for the next two days.
The view from our room.
Sal’s fever came back down that night so she dived without any problems, the diving was pretty average but we had fun nonetheless. We found a nice Spanish bar on the beach and some local BBQ to eat next door and passed our time under the water and on the beach. Pretty hard going 😉
One of the dive highlights at Malapasqua is seeing Thresher Sharks, a very rare species with a really long tail fin, as long as the rest of the shark combined, which it uses to whip around and hit a fish it wants to eat. They live much deeper than we can dive, but in some rare places they come to the shallow to be cleaned by other reef fish at dawn, before the sun gets too high as their big eyes are sensitive to the sunlight. We got up at 4am for that dive…
So it’s 5am, still almost dark and I’m 30m below the surface of the sea, kneeling down on a rocky bottom hoping to see a shark. The visibility is really poor, maybe 5m so it’s easy to lose your dive group, and with another 50 people in the same area it’s chaos.
Someone kicks me in the head moving my regulator and my mask floods, I resist the urge to PANICK and control my breath, reset the mask and clear it again… ‘What the fuck am I doing down here!?’
‘Sweets for my sweet, sugar for my honey…’
Our group move away from the masses and the dive master puts us on another ledge, I’m wondering how much longer we can stay so deep, at 30m we are absorbing 4 x as much nitrogen into our blood as we should be, and more than 15mins is a risk for decompression sickness.
I’m still having a bit of a ‘WTF are we doing here moment when the guide excitedly points into the blue and one of the sharks appears, swims across us, turns and disappears again.
The guide seems pleased and we ascend to finish the dive in the shallow, where we’re treated with 3 eagle rays gracefully circling above us for ten minutes, really cool! We’re back on the shore before 7am, tired but happy.
Which brings me back to the bus trip…
‘You’re a woman I’m a man, this is more than just a game, i can make you feel so right, be my lady of the night’…
The 80’s have a lot to answer for.
So our Philippines adventure continues, today we have left Bohol and are doing the walk+ferry+taxi+bus+tricycle+ferry+walk to get to Malapasqua, for the last 4 nights in this lovely corner of the world.
In Bohol we went to Panglao and dived at Balicasag Is for a day, and then rented a couple of motorbikes for 3 more days to explore the main island of Bohol.
It’s always fun trying to work out what we should be paying for things, for example someone tried to charge us 500 pesos for a bus ride to Panglao that we later got for 50 pesos!
So we shopped around to get a good deal on the bikes, which were eventually brought to our hotel in a strange slightly dodgy situation.
Three guys brought the bikes, with a used disclaimer/waiver, and went to great pains to point out what little damage was already on them. They also had three helmets thinking there must be another guy in our group, but we gave them one back saying one bike was for Sal… This initially confused them, but then they were super impressed that a foreign girl could ride a real motorbike. They were less impressed when I drew pictures of both the bikes on the agreement, showing all the existing damage 🙂
The impressed men was to be a bit of a theme for the next three days, with teenage boys often blowing kisses to Sal along the road, as you could imagine she hated the attention 😉
So we visited the Tarsier sanctuary, home to one of the oldest creatures on the planet, these little primates branched off from the primate evolutionary process something like 55 million years ago, and one variant has lived in isolation in Bohol ever since.
They’re tiny little things, that would fit in your palm, with huge eyes that don’t articulate, and a neck that rotates 360 deg instead. Of course they’re on the endangered list, loss of habitat and poaching… Very sad. Such little curious animals that have survived for so long, hopefully the Fillipino’s take better care of them than the orangutans in Indo.
Then we rode to the Chocolate mountains, which are a cluster of small hills that go brown in summer… Wow.
From there we rode about 300km around Bohol, stopping a night at a lovely little beach where a local band played mostly covers but with some cool Fillipino songs thrown in.
The bad news for us in this, is that Sal seems to have contracted dengue fever – red rash, a very high temperature, bad aches and pains and cold sweats. She’s soldiering on with paracetamol for the aches as there is no other treatment available, just stay hydrated and wait for it to pass.
Now we’re on the aforementioned bus going north in Cebu. It’s a strange vehicle, 3 seats each side of the aisle, fasten your seatbelt signs everywhere but no seatbelts, one driver who constantly sounds the air horns, one man who hangs out the centre door continuously shouting at people on the street to see if they need a ride, and one ticket collector who still hasn’t given me my 700 pesos change ($20).
Very slow going with all the starting and stopping, 6 hours to travel a bit more than 100km!
Hopefully we make the last ferry when we arrive!
We missed the ferry 🙁