Thankfully this was the last of it…
Just arrived in Thailand, loving the food already and we haven’t even eaten yet 😉
Tomorrow Chiang Mai!
Writing this from bed in a hotel room in northern Laos, the town is called Oodoumxiay or Muang Xai, or any one of a few different versions of either of those. Most towns in Laos have more than one name, makes finding them interesting sometimes.
The most important thing that happened today is that we eventually ate something that was not pho. It was chinese fried fish, barely an improvement actually, but when it came time to pay, the bill was several times what we were expecting… cue mexican style standoff, with both sides threatening to call the police (i still dont have their number or a phone to call on…), and eventually we settled for something inbetween.
They were not happy though and swore in several different languages as we left. I’m pretty glad Betsy is parked in reception tonight!
The last few days have been spent eating pho. Oh and we rode the bike around a bit, but mostly we just ate pho. pho for breakfast, pho for lunch and pho for dinner. For two whole days.
In between feasting on our favourite combination of boiled beef strips, beef stock, noodles and a tiny bit of spring onion (sounds delicious doesnt it?!), we left Luang Prabang, home to the most beautiful waterfall we’ve seen here, and headed to Pnosavan, to see the Plain of Jars. Never heard of it? No I’m not surprised. Suffice to say, it is a plain, dotted with large stone Jars, 1m high and wide, that date back to 500BC. No one really knows where they came from, or what they were used for. A bit like stone henge, except stone henge is not shit.
An interesting thing about the plain of jars is that it was one of the centres of the US bombing campaign in Laos in the Vietnam war. Sadly Laos has the ignomy of being the most heavily bombed country in the world, 2,000,000 tonnes of bombs were dropped in this little country, which is the same as the total tonnage dropped by ALL of the allied forces in WW2. Pretty crazy given that Laos was not officially in the Vietnam war at all!!
But the most remarkable part of northern laos, once you leave the tourist trail, is just how friendly the people are. The smiles and waves we’re gtting from the kids on the road is almost overwhelming. It feels like i’m chauffering the queen in London!
The towns we ride through are basically just a row of rickety wooden houses on each side of the road, sometimes just a few, and othertimes they go on for a kilometer. Life for the people the these villages seems to play out on the road in full view, they wash at a hand pump somewhere along the road, they cook their meals outside on the ‘footpath’, the kids play on the road, and their amimals roam across the road at will. We see women weaving on ancient wooden looms, we see kids bringing firewood back to the centre of town in baskets hung on their backs from a strap that’s stretched across their foreheads and we see women feeding babies.
All manner of animals roam the road. Passing any village I’ll need to brake hard to miss chickens, ducks, dogs, cows, pigs, turkey and buffalo, and it seems they all have babies at the moment so chicks, puppies and piglets are everywhere! So far I’ve only hit one chicken, which was very sad.
The scenery has been mountainous, we’ve been climbing and decending for the past three days, as high as 1600m and down to 300m, but always going up and down, and continually turning corners. The road has ranged from new tar to horribly broken up, but usually ok, and Betsy is really in her element, I wont bang on about it, but I’ve really been enjoying the ride.
Tomorrow we expect to reach the Thai border, and the next day with a bif of luck we’ll be in Chiang Mai.
Cant wait not to eat Pho ever again.
So we did have phô for breakfast/lunch… But made it to a ‘Chinese’ restaurant for dinner… It was so bad and oily that it made us wish we had had phô… They also tried to charge us 3 times more than they had originally quoted… Really looking forward to Thailand ☺️
I shit you not, if I have to eat another bowl of noodles for breakfast tomorrow I’m going to be sick.
6 of our last 7 meals have been Pho. Aka beef noodle soup.
Not because we like it, or because we can’t read the menu, just because that’s all you can buy in this part of the world.
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