Archive for the ‘Laos’ Category

Four Thousand Islands

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011

(Em) After another great night’s sleep in the dorm in Thakhek, we got back on the road south. Our next destination was Four Thousand Islands, a collection of islets in the Mekong river at the southern tip of Laos, cited as being a great place to relax (how many of the ‘four thousand’ would be fit in, we wondered?!) Juan had made an early start with the intention of riding the 550km stint down to the islands all in one day whereas we, who like to travel at a more sedentary pace, had picked Pakse (still a good 350km away) as a more realistic target for the day. The whole journey was pretty tedious as we rode through a flat, dry landscape on straight roads; it became one of those days where you’re just trying to get the mileage done. At one point we passed an overland cyclist (a crazy breed of people) and, stopping for a chat, discovered he was Vincent from France who is cycling around southeast Asia after starting in Vietnam. He was behind schedule after a DHL muck up had left him waiting in Luang Prabang for a new passport to turn up and he was now trying to catch up by doing 140km+ days back to back. He looked in serious need of a rest! Vincent was also heading to Four Thousand Islands via Pakse, though for him the remaining 45km represented several more hard hours in the unrelenting sun unlike our easy blast. We are always amazed by cyclists, especially on days like this; if we think the road is straight and boring, imagine what it’s like for them!! We gave him our water, wished him luck and continued on our way through the scrubland.

Pakse is a small, non-descript town, easy enough to navigate (for James anyway!) and we found a room fairly quickly. We were both feeling a bit under the weather with heavy colds (picked up either from the unhealthy wasters hanging around in Vang Vieng or through watching an episode of the West Wing where everyone had the flu… I guess the former is more likely!) James was also suffering from a dodgy stomach which had persisted ever since we’d entered Laos, most likely due to the lower standards of hygiene of the street food vendors compared with Thailand, and the combination had left him feeling pretty weary. In the evening, we managed to find a place selling reasonably priced food (Laos is much more expensive than we’d anticipated) and got a really early night.  Waking feeling slightly more refreshed the next day and with only 120km on the agenda, we stopped for breakfast before departing the town only to find Vincent the cyclist sitting in the same café! We had breakfast with him and discussed previous routes and experiences before heading off. As with the previous day, it was another dull, hot ride. The only thing of note was when we saw a local man and woman walking along the side of the road, the man holding what looked like a loop of rope. As we passed, James said into the intercom, ‘Hey, was that a snake?’ We turned around and sure enough, he was walking along carrying a live snake, his thumb and forefinger clamped tightly around the back of its head. We mimed ‘Is it to eat?’ (yes) and then, ‘Is it poisonous?’ (more alarmingly, yes!) James asked if he could take a few photos to which the guy gladly obliged and then they went on their way. Another world!

On seeing a sign for ‘Don Khong’ (the main island of the ‘Four Thousand’) we turned off the main road and down a track to what must be the ‘port’ – a clearing by the river where a few small boats were docked. A conversation with the boat pilots (which relied heavily on mime acting) ascertained that the bikes could be transported across the short stretch of water to Don Khong for a fee of 50,000 kip per bike. That seemed pretty steep to us so we resolved to go a bit further down the road to the ‘car ferry port’, hoping that the boatmen might drop the price as we began to move off. However, in Laos they don’t seem to have grasped the concept of bargaining, that a lower price is better than no custom at all (it is the same at many of the guesthouses we ask at – they remain sitting empty because they don’t offer competitive rates) and predictably the boat guys seemed quite content to watch potential business ride off despite a clear lack of any other customers.  Down at the other port (i.e. a slightly larger clearing by the river) we were quoted the far more reasonable price of 10,000 kip per bike – quite the difference!! Fee sorted, there now remained the more dubious challenge of getting the bikes aboard the… well, ‘ferry’ certainly isn’t the word! Our transportation was, in essence, a small floating wooden platform buoyed by three narrow canoes, access to which was via a plank of wood. And I’d thought getting onto the ferry at Chiang Khong had been scary!! James went first (of course!) but on hearing an ominous cracking sound as he mounted the plank, he quickly aborted! Ah, what to do? The boatmen had a solution though and indicated that we should ride round to another vessel further down the beach where the gap between shore and boat was narrower thus strengthening the access plank. Our guy wasn’t about to lose our custom to a rival, though, so he meanwhile manoeuvred his boat alongside the one we were now lined up to mount in order for us to ride over the first boat and onto his. Right, time to go for it! Luckily no cracking to be heard this time so up James went. It took a few minutes for him to manoeuvre his bike manually to make room for me and then it was my turn. I didn’t want to make the mistake of not getting all the way up the ramp so gave it some beans… maybe a little too much as I nearly rode off the other side of the boat and into the river! I was on though, that’s the main thing!

It took less than five minutes to cross over to the island. At the other side, rather than pull up to the small, uneven section of bank, the boat pilot steered our boat towards a large floating metal pontoon that was hanging out over the water, motoring up alongside it to where, luckily, the ramp drew level with our wooden platform. The only thing keeping the gap closed as we rode off was him standing on the ramp and pulling the boat towards him with his own two hands! Safely on dry land, we rode up the track to the ‘main road’ and were mildly disappointed (though we shouldn’t have been surprised, I suppose) to find that the island looked exactly like the main land had done: flat, dry and dusty. Undeterred, we made our way to the main village where the guesthouses were located… hmmm, surely this wasn’t the focal point of Don Khong? The village consisted of a line of shabby guesthouses situated along a dirt track, opposite each of which was a rather uninspiring ‘restaurant’ (shack selling food) looking out over the Mekong (running rather low at this point in the season) and all the other ‘islands’ (there are only really three inhabited ones, the rest refer to clumps of land that rise out of the water.) Right…. So not quite the lush island paradise we had been anticipating!! We did manage to find a nice guesthouse set back off the road (one of the smartest but also the cheapest) but I have to say, we were left puzzled as to why this area was touted as such a tourist draw. The lack of shops and wi-fi could be seen as a positive – it’s nice to get away from it all now and again – but the potential on Don Khong as a chilled out haven was completely wasted. The tranquil location by the Mekong cried out for hammocks swinging by the river and dining al fresco with fairylights and candles, but instead there were beer crates piled up in the street, electric lights that attracted thousands of bugs at dusk and the only hammocks around were invariably occupied by residents!

Bemused, we settled down for a beer (when in doubt…) and were surprised to see Juan turn up around 5pm – we’d assumed he’d have got here before us as he’d left Thakek to do the stint all in one day. Turns out that rather than follow the road straight south as we had done, he’d gone off for a little jaunt to the east, camping by an amazing waterfall for the night before coming to the islands. Apparently it was the best, most scenic road he’s done yet in Laos… Great, so glad we missed it!! Juan was equally as bewildered at what all the fuss was about with 4000 Islands – maybe we’d come too late in the season, missing the most picturesque part of the year? (Though I still don’t think they’d have had hammocks and fairylights…) In addition to the anti-climax of the location, James and I also had a small problem resulting from the lack of facilities on the island; we had no money! Well, we had just about enough Laos Kip to pay for our two nights’ accommodation and food (as long as we skipped lunch and limited ourselves to sharing one beer each day) but we’d intended to withdraw some dollars, required to pay for our Cambodian visa, before heading the 20km or so down to the border. Resigned to having a frugal few days, we resolved to get some cash out once back on the mainland until we were told by staff at the guesthouse that the nearest ATM was in Pakse. Yes, Pakse – where we’d spent the previous evening, now 120km away!!! You cannot be serious! (Now, before you waggle a finger at us saying, ‘what do you expect in a developing country’, let me explain that in the whole of the rest of Laos there had been plenty of cashpoints!!) We began to weigh up our options: ride back to Pakse (no thank you!) or… well, that seemed the only option really. Thankfully, we were directed to speak to ‘Mr Pon’, seemingly the man in Don Khong, who ushered us down the street to his flash (James: and very empty) hotel where we were able to buy some dollars with our visa card (for a handling fee, of course, though we didn’t mind too much – it had saved us the cost of riding the 250km round trip back to Pakse!) Phew!

Originally, we’d thought we might spend several days at Four Thousand Islands just chilling out but, lacking as it was in pretty much any charm, we decided to go after just one day! Juan was of a similar persuasion so the three of us left together. We half expected to be fleeced getting a boat back to the mainland (after all, they had you over a barrel on the return leg) but were pleasantly surprised to be quoted 10,000 kip per bike again. There was no way three bikes were fitting on one boat so Juan and I went over first, followed closely behind by James who was joined by a couple of locals on mopeds. Seasoned pros at the mount and dismount now, we got back to dry land without incident and we were soon on our way to the Cambodian border. It was only a short distance so on the way we stopped off to visit some recommended waterfalls… or not; they were charging a fee to get in and we’d used up every last ‘kip’ on the islands (James: It’s important to ensure you have no Laos Kip left over as it’s impossible to exchange outside of the country). Denied! So to the border it was, where our carnets were quickly signed off at a dusty customs office and we avoided paying the $2 dollar exit stamp fee by playing vague – ‘Most people pay,’ the immigration officials assured us but it was clearly a completely shady affair as they didn’t pursue it further than that! It’s not the amount we objected to so much as the principle of being charged for what they were getting paid to do, and to pay would set a bad precedent for the next tourist (James: We’re also aware that if you pay once, they tend to radio their mates down the road to let them know that a couple of soft touches are coming and you then get pulled over all the time – a trap we’ve made an effort not to fall into regardless of the pressure applied!) 

On the Cambodian side, we encountered the same half hearted demand for payment – this time, $1 for filling out a quarantine form. I flatly refused before James waded in to give a more diplomatic response (James: Those who know Em won’t be surprised that she sometimes finds it hard not to show her ‘disapproval’ at things. This can be an issue at some borders where officials like to ‘flex’ their muscles to show who’s boss. The answer is walk a fine line: compliant, yet looking like you’re not going to be worth the hassle of squeezing money from. Em’s generally pretty good these days, particularly after all the bureaucracy of central Asia, but she does ‘relapse’ occasionally when confronted with blatant corruption or ineptitude!… ) At the quarantine tent, we all had to fill in a medical form which listed eight symptoms of illness that you were meant to tick if you’d experienced them recently. Still feeling under the weather, James joked as he filled his out that really he should be ticking at least seven of the eight (of course, he didn’t confess!) but, when they pulled out some sort of temperature sensor gun and aimed it at each of our foreheads, his reading was a good couple of degrees higher than everyone else, triggering the alarm to go off on the device!! (James: a solid case of man-flu if ever I’ve seen one – I’m not one to complain though, well, not much anyway…..) Luckily, the whole quarantine affair was clearly just a sham to get money off tourists as they didn’t seem to care that James was potentially carrying a tropical disease! Getting the carnets stamped and obtaining our Cambodian visas was a quick and surprisingly ordered affair and it was only right at the end that there was a sting in the tail – $1 fee each for stamping our passports at immigration. There’s not a lot you can do when it’s the boys in charge of letting you into the country so we acquiesced and handed over what was essentially a donation to their beer fund! All in all, it was one of our quickest border processes yet and in just a matter of minutes we were riding into Cambodia, country number 24…

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The Thakhek Loop

Saturday, March 12th, 2011

(Emily) True to our word, we awoke in the air-conditioned luxury in Vientiane and made it down to join Juan for breakfast at 7am (until now he has been shocked at how late we get up!) to enjoy the hotel’s complimentary warm baguettes, croissants, omelette and fruit – quite the feast, especially considering we usually skip breakfast! Looking at the map, we estimated where we might end up that evening based on a 250 – 300km day and, although the map showed that it was possible to do the whole route on a major road (James: in developing countries like Laos, ‘major’ doesn’t always mean what you think it does!), we decided to do the first part on a smaller road that ran alongside the Mekong for about 70km before re-joining the main route. The hope was that it would be as pretty as the road we’d ridden in Thailand on the other side of the river a couple of months earlier when we’d done our visa run with Darren. Turns out that wasn’t quite the case! It was little more than a dirt track (well, it was a dirt track, just quite a wide one) and, now that the dry season was in full swing, it was a complete dust-fest! We bumped and bounced along, only catching occasional glimpses of the Mekong through the trees, wondering why on earth we hadn’t just taken the main road. Well, I guess if you don’t try, you’ll never know! After about an hour and a half, we finally emerged to join the main road south, with sore butts and faces that looked like we’d overdone it on the fake tan. James was laughing to see the orange streaks across my cheeks but  I cracked up when he took his own helmet and goggles off – riding at the rear, he’d got the full brunt of the dust clouds kicked up by me and Juan and looked like he’d been tangoed!

Once on the main road, we were soon making pretty good progress. Thankfully, the weather had cooled considerably after  heavy rain in the night which was such a relief as the previous day’s ride to Vientiane had been unbearably hot and humid and we’d worried that that was our lot now all the way to Malaysia. It was a pretty boring ride; straight, fast roads through parched landscape, especially after the lush paddy fields and awesome rock formations that we’d ridden through in the north. We were amused that in several of the small villages we passed, loud music could be heard blaring from disproportionately large speakers then, when passing the actual source of the sound, we would see a group of maybe eight to ten people gathered under an awning dancing! We even saw a truck passing with amplifying speakers piled up at the front which then revealed a full band sitting behind them in the back playing live music to no-one in particular while the truck drove along! Laos people seem to like to party!! When we stopped for a late lunch of noodle soup (James: our standard ‘on the road’ lunch – cheap and filling but light enough so we don’t get groggy in the afternoon!), we’d already comfortably passed the 250km mark but there were still a good couple hours of daylight left so we consulted the map and decided to push on as far as Thakhek, the first major town in southern Laos. We were actually starting to get a bit chilly (bizarrely it had gone from the hottest day in a long time to the coldest in 24 hours) and the sky ahead was looking increasingly grey. With about 80km to go, we saw the unmistakeable shapes of two big, loaded motorbikes coming towards us and sure enough, we were passed by two Honda Transalps, clearly packed for overlanding. We pulled over to say hi and they introduced themselves as Elke and Ralf, a couple from Germany who are overlanding from Australia all the way home. They confirmed that there was rain to the south where they’d come from (oh great!) and recommended some caves to the east (James: to visit, not for shelter!). We hadn’t even got as far as consulting a guide book about the region where we were headed (it’s got to the point where we do it once we’ve arrived!) so it was good to get a heads up. Before we set off again, the cold was getting a bit much so for the first time since, I don’t know, maybe the mountains in China, we got out our waterproof jacket liners. Hard times!

It wasn’t long before we felt the first spots of moisture and soon enough we were riding along in driving rain which showed no signs of abating. Bleurgh! At least the road was pretty empty of other traffic and it continued to be generally straight which negated negotiating dangerous corners in the wet. It was a bit of a shock to the system to be riding in rain; up until now we’d been incredibly lucky with the weather (apart from the three weeks of monsoon-like downpours we’d experienced in Italy and the Balkans) and even when it had rained (eastern Turkey comes to mind), we’d usually managed to find shelter and wait it out. Admittedly, it’s not like we had to get to Thakhek, and there were plenty of guesthouses along the way (bizarrely, in Laos they occur at regular intervals even in the most random, unpopulated of places) but there’s a part of you that gets stubborn once you’ve set your mind on a target! Our single-mindedness was rewarded when we pulled into the guesthouse in Thakek and saw, of all the things we never expected to find in this part of the world, a blazing fire in the garden! Result! We parked up and spent the next fifteen minutes basking in the blissful heat of the roaring flames (especially James who rides along with his visor up even in the stinging rain, crazy fool!) Very surreal, especially after the previous day when the thought of a fire on top of the oppressive heat would have been torturous!

The guesthouse (called ‘Travel Lodge’ – no relation!) was a great place to stop for the night; quiet and cheap (for the dorm room at least) and with other like-minded travellers to chat to around the fire. In the morning, we woke early and refreshed (the dorm of ten had been full but was the quietest communal room we’d ever slept in) and over breakfast discussed where we might go from here. There was a lot of indecision going on. In a way, I think because we’d got back into the habit of riding everyday and feeling the sense of achievement from the resulting quick progress, we were keen to crack on and continue south towards Cambodia. However, several people had mentioned something about ‘the loop’, a circuit to the east that left from Thakhek taking in caves and waterfalls and good scenery… but also a section of ‘very bad road’. It would also entail repeating the boring 100km stretch back to the north of Thakhek – ideally we should have stopped for the night further north and done the circuit clockwise. The guesthouse had a scrap book where previous guests had written accounts of their experiences of ‘the loop’ (usually on hired mopeds), citing beautiful vistas along the way but also referring to the unpaved section as ‘the road from hell’! We dawdled and deliberated but in the end it was me, despite my aversion to voluntarily putting myself in the position where I have to go off-road, who said that we should go for it. After all, we’d been saying that Laos hadn’t quite blown us away so far but who were we to judge if we ignored recommendations like this? Decision made, we packed up in quick order, keen not to waste any more time after all our procrastinating; Juan was pretty sure we could make it half way round the loop in one day (despite several people in the book writing that it would be ‘crazy and dangerous’ to attempt to complete the whole thing in less than four days) so we needed to get a move on.

The first stretch east on route 12 was great – already more lush than the arid landscape we’d been riding through the past couple of days and with jagged walls of limestone karst up ahead in the direction we were headed in. We’d read that the whole area had experienced development in the last few years with the construction of a massive new dam but apart from evidence in the, at times, flooded sections to the side of the road, we passed through the same simple, dusty villages as always. It was only as we turned north onto route 8B for the second leg of the loop that we found ourselves on a brand new stretch of road that took us past the dam site. Almost immediately after passing the dam however, the road deteriorated completely and we were soon jarring our way through potholes and gravel. There was a bit of confusion when Juan’s satnav indicated that we should in fact be on a road a couple of hundred metres to the east, and indeed the occasional markers by the side of the road cited ‘route 13’ rather than the expected ‘8B’ but a couple of locals confirmed that we were definitely headed for Lak Sao at the north-east ‘corner’ of the loop so we stayed the course. In all likelihood the original road had been flooded as part of the dam construction. In any case, even with all the potholes, the track we were on was nowhere near as bad as we had been expecting from the accounts in the Travel Lodge scrapbook. Wusses! We’d assumed that we’d be passing backpackers on hired mopeds throughout the day but we only came upon one group, a merry band of English and Americans who’d pulled in to sort a flat tyre. For most of them it was their first time on a scooter (and manual ones at that) and the bone-jarring off-road section was to them a pretty wild experience. We realised then that our perspective of  a ‘road from hell’ compared with the average tourist on a hire bike was likely to be quite different so no wonder the track was proving not to be as bad as expected.

Right? Wrong! No sooner did we say goodbye to the enthusiastic scooter clan than we turned a corner to find the road narrow dramatically to little more than a path, and the broken but generally smooth terrain become full of jagged rocks. How can this be called a road?! Luckily, my off-roading abilities have vastly improved (or rather my confidence has, which is half the battle) so I managed to negotiate my way through pretty deftly and, although we had to reduce speed considerably, we were able to continue quite comfortably (or ‘uncomfortably’ in the literal sense – I certainly wouldn’t want to be experiencing it with a scooter’s suspension!) That is, until we came to the mud (James: thick wet clay to be precise – the worst kind as it retains the water, has no stones in it for grip and cakes the tyres completely!). To be fair, we were half expecting it after the heavy rain of the previous day but there’s still nothing that prepares you for that sinking feeling when you turn a corner to be confronted with thick, red gloop blocking your path. I baulked at the sight of James’ rear tyre sliding sideways as he rode through the first bit in front of me and with my bike fully loaded, including the backpack holding the laptop, it just wasn’t worth the risk of a drop so I handed over to him to do it for me (lucky James!) However, when rounding the next turn revealed yet more wet clay, I realised that it was time to bite the bullet – who knows how long this would continue for and we couldn’t go through the palaver of James walking back to relieve me every single time (though he would have if I’d asked him, hero that he is). We ploughed on as best we could, making our way gingerly through the worst patches (though not too gingerly – you have to keep the throttle on constant or you have even bigger problems) and were thankful that the day’s bright sunshine was at least airing the road sufficiently to give us dry stretches for the wheels to get unclogged. It didn’t help to see Juan up ahead struggling even more than we were – his loaded BMW GS 1200 weighs in at over 350kg and there were many moments when we had to watch helpless as he fought to control his sliding bike. At one point he was caught coming out of a particularly deep dip in the muddy track without enough momentum. Not wanting to give it too much beans for risk of sliding out of control, he revved in vain with his back tyre wheel-spinning for a good two minutes and James was just about to trudge over to help when at last he gained traction and was able to move forward again. Huge puddles lingered where the pot holes were particularly deep and although we tried to ride around them, sometimes there was no room for evasion and you had to take the plunge, hoping that a) it wasn’t so deep you’d get stuck or damage the bike and b) the submerged track was stony rather than a slick of clay. Nerve-wracking stuff! Still, I have to say, for the first time in the whole trip, I managed to relax and enjoy the bad road for the challenge it was rather than practically hyperventilating inside my helmet (which is what normally happens), even when Juan’s bike went down right in front of me, a reminder that we hate mud for a reason, it’s not just in our heads!

So, the ‘road from hell’? I wouldn’t go that far. But it was quite knackering riding through this kind of terrain for 40km, on top of the 30km of potholes we’d already done and when we finally emerged onto tarmac near Lak Sao (after several false dawns of ‘Phew, it’s over… no, here’s some more mud’) our aching bodies were thankful for the reprieve. A late lunch of, you guessed it, noodle soup (started with chopsticks, finished with a spoon Joanna!) revived us further and we started to make our way west for the third leg of the loop. This was by far the best stretch of the day – 80km of smooth, winding curves that one guidebook describe as ‘like stepping into a video game’. We were now riding in the midst of the rocky limestone hills that we’d seen in the distance earlier on, first enjoying valleys of impossibly green paddy fields before climbing into hills of deep forest all in the warm glow of the evening sun. It was about half an hour before sunset when we reached Khoun Kham from where a road led south to the Kong Lo caves (as recommended by the German overlanding couple we’d passed the previous day). We decided to call it a day and leave the 40km down to the caves until the morning so found a guesthouse and devoured huge piles of fried rice before retiring to bed at the crazy hour of 9pm! Hard core bikers, us!

Luckily, thanks to a second new dam in the area, a proper road down to the caves had been constructed in 2009 making it a quick run to Kong Lo (this was a detour and not part of the actual loop). After parking up in a wooded glade, a parting in the trees revealed what looked to be a beautiful, crystal clear lagoon nestled at the foot of a rocky cliff. This was in fact the Nam Hin Bun river which, contrary to appearances, actually continues to flow into the rock face forging a tunnel through a system of caves over 7km long. Awesome! Boat hire wasn’t cheap but shared between Juan and ourselves it wasn’t too bad and by the end we agreed we’d got more than our money’s worth. Two guides accompanied us, one to operate the motor and the other to sit at the front with an industrial sized head torch that he had wired to a battery pack round his waist: inside the caves it was black, pitch black! We’d brought our own camping head torches but they barely penetrated a few feet in front of us so we pleased that James had also brought his powerful Lenser; that way we were able to direct light at the surrounding walls and ceiling and appreciate the vast size of the caves we were moving through, in places 100m wide and almost as high. At one point, we disembarked on a shingle bank and followed the guide up a rocky path to find some incredible stalactites and stalagmites, looking quite magical in the subtle blue green up-lighting. An awe-inspiring example of nature at its finest. Being the dry season, the river ran very low in places so we were sometimes required to get out into the knee deep water while the two boat pilots pulled the boat clear of the rocky bed; quite unnerving when you can’t really see what you are doing!  Just as it was starting to get a bit freaky being in the dark for so long, we saw light at the end of the tunnel (as it were!) and we brought out into the dazzling sunshine. We had been inside the caves for over an hour and everything seemed somehow brighter and more colourful. Our guides (who incidentally spoke no English whatsoever!) deposited us on the riverbank for a short break and then it was once more into the gaping hole in the rock…

We all agreed that it had been well worth the trip. It’s not every day you get to experience a natural phenomenon like that, plus it had been surprisingly tourist free, much like the whole of the loop, which added to the sense of getting away from it all. We retraced the 40km back up to Khoun Kham and made our way west to join the main road south back to Thakhek. Having already done the 100km south and knowing it to be straight and boring, we thought our adventures on the loop were over. However, just before the junction at the northwest ‘corner’ of the loop, we were passing through a quiet village when a moped emerged suddenly from a dwelling on the left had side. Juan, in the lead, had already passed but I was just coming up to the point where the moped was joining the road, with James not far behind. The guy definitely saw us, but to my dismay he continued to pull out into the road and instead of straightening up to go forward (which would have been stupid enough – he should have just waited for us to pass), I realised he was coming directly across my path to cross to the other side of the village. I beeped and beeped but to no avail and the timing was such that we were headed for certain collision. I was being forced into a corner and, at 60kph+, there was no time to break hard without coming off for sure. There was nothing for it but to veer off the road into the grass verge, which also happened to be a trench. (James: There really was nothing Em could do. Certain we were looking at a serious accident, I watched helplessly as Em took the only option and ploughed off the road into a ditch filled with a tree and other obstacles, all whilst never backing off the throttle and never touching the brakes. She then launched off a large drainpipe 60cm off the ground, landing a long way further down the ditch before powering out and coming to stop back at the side of the road. By the time Juan and I got to her she was laughing hysterically while we just contemplated, open-mouthed, how the hell she’d survived totally unscathed and where the hell she’d learnt to ride like that!) Well, how I managed to stay upright, I have no idea!! The adrenalin was pumping like mad but all in all I was pretty calm (er, save the hysterical laughter!). James, meanwhile, was off the bike in a jiffy and striding back to the village to find  the perpetrator who had, quite wisely, gone into hiding! A close call to be sure, and a reminder that all it takes is one stupid idiot to ruin your day. Luckily, this time we’d adverted disaster. Needless to say, the boring 100km back to Thakhek was a welcome relief after all that excitement!

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Northern Laos

Tuesday, March 8th, 2011

(James) We were up fairly early the next morning in Luang Nam Tha (not as easy as it sounds as our bed was amazing!) and having loaded the bikes were on our way. Although Luang Prabang was to the south, the combination of mountains and a fairly basic road network meant our route initially took us further to the north east to the town of Na Toei, just 5km from the border with southern China, from where we were finally able to start our run south. The road up to Na Toei was surprisingly good -roads connecting trading partners always seem to be in fairly decent shape, and Thailand and China had spent money on the link road that cut through Laos between their two countries. Obviously trade between them and Laos isn’t quite so rewarding as the road south was in a pretty poor state. Initially we rode through sections where roadworks had started but never progressed beyond ripping up the old surface, but soon it was just good old ‘bad’, and we spent the next few hours riding up and down twisty mountain roads that had short paved but potholed sections interspersed between longer sections of dirt and stones. I won’t lie; despite the slow progress, we were actually really enjoying ourselves! Thailand had spoilt us too much with its perfect roads whereas this felt more like the adventure we’d enjoyed in the less developed countries earlier in the trip (in Thailand we’d started to get the feeling that the ‘adventure’ part of our trip was over). We passed through the occasional dusty village, with simple wooden houses sitting on stilts and, just as we had in central Asia, were greeted by a mixture of insane waving or open-mouthed stares. Before, whenever we’d moved from wealthier countries to poorer ones, there had either been a gradual change or a suitably large barrier in between (a sea or a mountain range) so we were quite shocked by the sudden change in poverty levels when we had crossed the river into Laos, and this shock continued as we rode through the mountains in the north. People here live the most basic and backward lifestyle. There were no small shops (even in the most undeveloped places we’ve been through, people have normally set up a stall to sell water to those passing through) and no sign of any schools. We’ve generally found that in communist/socialist countries, even in the poorest village there’s normally a hut or a propaganda banner for the ‘party’ (the political kind, not the fun kind!) but not here. Clearly these people, with their subsistence lifestyle, were of little value or interest to the government (and I don’t suppose that a total change of government would remotely effect these villagers lives either); their only ‘contact’ with their government being when officials blast through (not stopping, of course!) in their Lexus  4x4s and cover them all in dust.

At around midday we saw some sort of military style truck up ahead with German plates – fellow overlanders? (More often than not the overlanders we meet are Germans, they  really are the most adventurous travellers!) Having caught up and passed them, we pulled over to say hello; they were, it turned out, Hubert and Ana-Laura, a husband and wife team who were driving in an ex-military ambulance around the world. In true overlanding style they had been on the road for 8 years since retiring and selling everything they owned! Even before this epic undertaking, they’d ‘overlanded’ for three years in South America with their kids on board – they acted as teachers for the academic subjects and for the remainder, travelling provided an ideal education (their children have both gone on to work in the travel industry and marry partners they met in South America!) After a quick chat, we swapped details (overlanders always do – it’s a great way of getting the kind of information we need on everything from state of roads and recommended places to security, documentation and contacts) and set off on our way again.

The roads continued to be ‘changeable’ but as we continued deeper into the mountains they became unbelievably twisty. Even though Dean (the Aussie biker) had told us it was the most twisty road he’d ever been on, we couldn’t have envisaged this – it was ridiculous! The Mae Hong Son loop had been winding but not like this, and the surface quality here meant we were limited to second and third gear only. The hairpin turns went on and on, severely hampering our rate of progress to the extent that we started to talk about not making it to Luang Prabang that day. The problem was that despite being in the middle of nowhere, the terrain meant that there were no tracks off to the side of the road to find a quiet place to make camp, and when we did find an area of forest it tended to be on fire (the result of a fairly widespread ‘slash and burn’ policy that is seriously deforesting the region at a rate that’s not remotely sustainable).  So we continued to slowly make our way through endless corners and banks of smoke and by 4pm were still 100km north of our target. However, not long afterwards our road came out of the hills and ran down to a large river, normally indicating that the road will straighten itself out, and true enough we suddenly found ourselves on beautiful, smooth, pristine tarmac where we were able to stretch the bikes’ legs a bit – always nice after being stuck all day in the low gears! The farmland along the river was incredibly lush and there was no burning going on so we also got to enjoy the clear air and vivid colours of the dazzlingly green rice paddies, all of which refreshed us nicely as the temperature was in the high 30’s and  humid!

Having made up for lost time, we rolled into Luang Prabang at around 6pm and spent half an hour trying to find a guesthouse in the dark that had both cheap rooms and somewhere to park the bikes. Unfortunately, we’d arrived after the daily bus and river boat that comes down from the border crossing up where we’d crossed into Laos so the best options had already been taken (Em: and many places were seriously over-priced – Laos really was surprising us in that respect) . With little choice we settled on a place for that night (if only to have a shower and get out of our riding gear), with the plan that we’d move in the morning when we’d oriented ourselves and could see what we were doing! After we’d showered and changed, we went out to stretch our legs, get some food and locate some (very) cold beer, which we found in the shape of the nightly street market that runs the length of the town’s main road. An added bonus was that many of the food stalls were selling baguettes (Em: a legacy from French colonialism which I very much approve of!) , so Em and I were able to indulge in a couple of fantastic freshly baked baguettes absolutely stuffed with salad and chicken before heading back to our room for an early night.

In the morning, we spent an hour or so riding around the town and found somewhere suitably cheap and cheerful to stay before getting out and about to explore on foot. Luang Prabang is Laos’ ancient and spiritual capital and remained the capital until the communist takeover in 1975. Despite its important historical role, the town itself is still very quaint, small and quiet (the local authorities have banned large vehicles from entering the centre of the town) and, being situated on a peninsula between the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers, it’s easy to walk from one end to the other. The town is full of small back streets filled with guesthouses, boutique hotels, bar and cafes, all of which are incredibly ‘French’(including vintage Citroens parked in the street), and what doesn’t fall within that description tends to be a temple or monastery. As a religious centre it is something of a pilgrimage site and throughout the town we constantly pass Buddhist monks and very young ‘apprentice’ monks (I really want to say ‘padawan learners’ for all those Star Wars geeks out there!) wandering around in their orange robes and colleting alms from the locals. All in all a charming combination. Our walk didn’t last long though as we soon found ourselves flagging; the temperature into the low 40’s but it was the humidity that was taking its toll (Em: James was actually sweating – for those who don’t know him personally, he has some sort of genetic anomaly which means that he rarely perspires, so it really must have been hot!) so we made our way back to our room for a cold shower. This was something we ended up doing three times that day, and then three times more the next, until that evening when the weather finally broke and we had a much needed downpour to clear the air!

While staying in Luang Prabang, we went to visit some local waterfalls with Juan (who we’d managed to bump into  in a small side street – I’m really not sure how it happens but overlanders seem to be drawn to each other!) The falls themselves were about 30km south of the town in some nearby hills, giving us a nice little ride through small villages and peaceful rural pastures. Well, that was until there was an almighty explosion right next to us! My first instinct was that it might be a mine (Em: Juan and I thought we were being shot at!) but a quick glance to the left revealed about two hundred camouflaged Laos Army soldiers who had decided to do a live fire exercise, quite literally, at the side of the road! We quickly stopped and looked around in amazement to see several very large calibre machine guns on tripods large enough that the weapon itself was a head height, small artillery pieces and several mortars. The sound we heard had been the sound of a mortar round landing near a target no more than 300 metres away, and we watched in amazement as a couple more rounds were let fly before being told, in no uncertain terms, to leave! It was hilarious, and just another example of the kind of surreal experiences that life on the road gives us on a daily basis – I mean, can you imagine driving near your home and then seeing the army doing a live fire exercise at a bus stop or lay-by?!….

The waterfalls, when we got there, were beautiful. Starting on a high cliff hundreds of metres above us, they cascaded down in sections falling maybe 60 metres at a time before dropping off the next ledge, creating, in effect, several falls in one vertical column. The highlight however, came when the water reached ground level and ran down a gentle slope through the forest in a series of streams that divided and re-converged before reaching dozens of crystal clear pools where it then fell, sometimes just 30 cm, sometimes two or three metres down into the next pool, before repeating again over and over off into the forest. It was simply beautiful and within minutes of arriving, we were all in the water enjoying the now rare sensation of not being ridiculously hot! Late that afternoon we headed back to town but this time Em and I took Juan’s big BMW (Em: needless to say, I went pillion – I wouldn’t have been able to touch the floor!) while he had a play on Em’s bike. It was a bizarre feeling to be back on a big bike and the 1200cc engine made the riding effortless as we floated along – not that we regret our choice. We both love the more involving aspect of riding our Yamahas (Em: as for being a pillion, it was blissfully comfortable compared with the XT!).  On the way back, we passed by the soldiers again who were now wrapping things up (Em got caught trying to sneak a photo as we went by! They weren’t impressed!)

Juan left early the next morning and we hit the road south some 24 hours later. We were in two minds about where to go. We had fully intended to head east to the Plain of Jars (a plain with, as the name suggests, lots of ancient clay jars made and left sitting there, somewhat mysteriously,  by people unknown) but Juan, who’d already been that way before coming to Luang Prabang, had said it was quite literally ‘just a large boring plain with a couple of jars on it’ and not really worth it. A final decision was made early on in the day when, once again, we passed Hubert and Ana-Laura, the German overlanders in their ex-military ambulance. We pulled over to have a chat with them and drink yet more water (the heat and humidity at this late point in the dry season is really dehydrating!) and they too said that they’d been disappointed by the Plain of Jars. Well that sealed it! We hadn’t been that keen on this particular detour anyway so we decided to continue due south to the small town of Vang Vieng. We didn’t know anything about this town, aside from the fact that pretty much every backpacker in Thailand and Laos seemed to walk round wearing a t-shirt with ‘tubing in the Vang’ written all over it. It had become something of a inside joke for us when we’d been riding with our friend Darren before xmas and we were determined to become the first people in history to visit Vang Vieng and NOT buy a ‘tubing in the Vang’ vest/t-shirt!

The decision to continue south paid dividends almost immediately as the road was fantastic, twisting up into the hills, and then when we came over the crest of the final hill we were rewarded with even more spectacular scenery. Ahead of us were dozens of dramatic peaks, each sitting over rock formations that seemed to rise vertically out of the lush green rice paddies in the wide flat valleys below. As we ran down to the valley, the road ran alongside the river so our progress was good. I was aware as we rode along that somewhere on the other side of jagged hills to the east lay the ‘secret’ city of Long Tieng, somewhere I’d really wanted to visit. Long Tieng is in effect a ‘secret’ city and has been described as the most secret place on earth. It, like so much here, is a product of the Vietnam war. Laos, despite being declared neutral, was brought into the Vietnam war to such an extent that it has the dubious honour of being the heavily bombed country in history (an estimated 260 million tons of bombs were dropped on Laos during the Vietnam war – that’s more than during the whole of World War II!) Its fatal flaw (if it can be called that) was having a border with a significant section of Vietnam. The North Vietnamese used this fact to try to circumvent American attacks on the Ho Chi Minh trail, the supply and communication lines used by the communists to support fighters in South Vietnam (the ‘trail’ is not just one road as is normally assumed but a multitude of roads, tracks and footpaths). The decision to run their supply and communication lines across the border into neutral Laos led to the Americans secret bombing of  Laos, although they were already secretly operating in the country to counter a growing communist insurgency (the fact that the US was operating in Laos was kept from the public  for years). Amazingly, the majority of the ordinance dropped on the country was not as part of a strategic bombing campaign but because US bombers returning to base after being recalled (for whatever reason), would dump their payloads over Laos to avoid long winded procedures for landing fully loaded (you can’t be blamed for dropping bomb in a country you’re not even supposed to be in!) The CIA established an operating airfield  as early as 1962 in what had previously been an uninhabited valley and from this airfield launched raids and support operations against the communists using Hmong fighters and Thai mercenaries. The town of Long Tieng quickly grew (despite not officially existing) into the second largest city in Laos with a population of 40,000 people, and the airport became one of the busiest airports in the world! (If you have ever seen the Mel Gibson/Robert Downey Jr film ‘Air America’- that was about the CIA operation in Laos, Air America being the name given to the CIA operating fleet.) Reminders of Laos’ past remain everywhere as there are signs at the side of the roads warning of unexploded bombs and mines – millions of cluster bombs were dropped on Laos and many remain unexploded in rice paddies, forests and just hanging in trees (a reminder not to go wandering off paths). Unfortunately, they’re painted yellow making them irresistible to those children that discover them whilst out playing. Local NGO’s try to educate them but, of course, each year there are still plenty of victims of a war that ended more than 30 years before.

Needless to say, Long Tieng is still a no-go area so we had to knock the idea of a visit on the head and continued south, enjoying yet more fantastic roads. We rolled into Vang Vieng in late afternoon and having instinctively navigated our way to the area we felt would have guesthouses more suited to our needs, we rode in through the gates of the one that looked best only to find Juan’s BMW parked there! (Em: we’re pretty much stalking each other at this point!!)  There was no sign of Juan himself so having showered, we went out for a walk and quickly realised that Vang Vieng was a weird little place. Everywhere we went were young (and not so young) backpackers walking around in swimming shorts and bikinis carrying buckets of cocktails. They were all absolutely wasted have been drinking and tubing all day – basically this involves getting given lots of alcohol and then sitting in a large inflatable tube ring, something like a large inner tube, and riding down the river. When finished for the day, they’re driven back to town where they then wander around making tits of themselves (some have to go to hospital first and then do the same with bandages and crutches) and generally offending the locals. For evening entertainment they all go and sit in one of the many bars that have their sitting areas laid out in rows where they drink more, eat almost exclusively non Laotian food and watch endless episodes of Friends! (Em: it was like Malaga in southern Spain with its full English breakfasts and sunburnt Brits abroad…) Needless to say we weren’t impressed with it! We were pleased, however, to bump into Hubert and Ana-Laura once again so, with Juan located, the five of us went out for an enjoyable dinner together (at one of the few places not screening Friends!). The next morning we left with Juan who claimed that he, in fact, was the first person to ever come to Vang Vieng and not buy the t-shirt!

Despite getting up reasonably early it was already very hot so, after a quick breakfast, we hit the road and headed south for the capital, Vientiane. The road south was pretty unspectacular after the last few days but it was quick, and dusty, very dusty. By the time we arrived in Vientiane, it was mid afternoon and ridiculously hot and humid, but as Em and I had already been here once before (for our visa run) we were able to ride straight to an area which we knew to have lots of guesthouses. Unfortunately almost every single one was full, and those that weren’t were asking exorbitant prices for some absolute toilets so we had to start searching further away from the tourist centre – never ideal when it’s over 40 degrees (that’s over 105 Fahrenheit for those north Americans reading), very, very humid and you’re wearing motorcycle clothing. Having found a couple of options further afield we were about to chose one when Em sent me off one last search of the area (Em: who wears the trousers…?!). I came back with only one option. It was very posh but was only charging a couple more dollars for a room than the hovels we were looking at. I expected no interest as Juan, in particular, is a real budget traveller so was surprised when he asked jokingly if it had full air-con. When I told him that even the reception area was air-conditioned, his ears really perked up and he agreed that we should at least have a look (Em tends to be more easily sold when it comes to a bit of luxury!). Suffice to say, having stepped into the cool of the lobby (yes, it actually had a lobby!) everyone was instantly onboard so we checked in and were shown to our rooms, each of which were named after a different flower, and each of which smelt of said flower! (We were in Jasmine!)  (Em: The nagging feeling of guilt at paying more than usual was soon pushed to the back of our minds by the excitement of fresh white linen, a modern bathroom and quality teak furniture. I was worried that Juan had felt pressured into more expensive  lodgings that he’d have liked but, when he emerged from his room to give James a hug and a sincere ‘thank you’ – comedy, and quite unlike Juan! – my fears were allayed!!) We had a low key evening, having already seen the sights on our previous visit, and began to get excited about the prospect of visiting the less ‘well trodden’ paths of southern Laos and north-eastern Cambodia…

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Back on the road in Laos

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

(Em) The process of officially exiting Thailand from the border town of Chiang Khong was a piece of cake so it boded well that this, our first overland border crossing in a while, was going to be easier than normal. Chiang Khong is right on the banks of the Mekong, with Houey Xai, Laos’ counterpart border town, just across on the other side of the river. And herein lay our first problem; to cross the river with the bikes meant sidestepping the hoards of tourists all clambering into narrow boats and join the big boys on the car ferry. ‘Ferry’ is perhaps a little generous – it is a tug boat dragging a large metal pontoon – but that wasn’t our problem. The sticking point was that they were trying to charge 500 baht instead of the 200 baht that Dean and Dave had reportedly paid just weeks before. We tried nice, we tried indifferent, we tried nasty (well, not really) but they wouldn’t budge so it was very grudgingly that we bought our tickets. The whole time this was going on, I hadn’t failed to notice that the trucks driving onto the previous ‘ferry’ had had to do so through a couple of feet of water and mud where the on/off ramp didn’t quite reach the bank. Er, surely we wouldn’t be expected to do that on our bikes?! It seems I had been too long mollycoddled by the comforts of Thailand; of course that’s how we had to board the ferry! They were nice enough to try and move the larger rocks and pebbles out of the way but needless to say, I was bricking it. I came very close to wimping out, especially when I saw James’ rear tyre spinning and sliding when he went up ahead of me but there were two trucks rumbling impatiently behind me so I had to take the plunge! Of course, it was fine; another example of the importance of mind over matter (something I’m still getting the hang of…).

It was a pleasant ride across the river – very slow as we were against the tide and our pontoon had the aerodynamics of a brick, but that gave the deckhands time to give the first truck a wash. A clever use of time and resources, they just hauled water up from the river and sloshed away! Once we made it off at the other side (luckily the ramp touched down on solid ground this time), we rode up towards the village to find the sustoms and immigration office which we’d been reliably informed were nowhere near the port and in completely unmarked buildings. Having located them, we got our carnets signed (remarkably quick and simple) and I stayed with the bikes on the main road while James walked down to the passenger port to get our visas. Or not. He trudged back up towards me fifteen minutes later looking somewhat concerned. ‘Well, I’m ok, but you’re not allowed in the country.’ What?! It turned out that Thai immigration back on the other side of the river had put my exit stamp, quite understandably, in my old passport next to my Thai visa, whereas now I was starting my new passport, Laos immigration needed to see the stamp in there! Bugger! There was no way round it so, frustratingly, I had to get a ‘speedboat’ (narrow boat with a motor) back over to Thailand. It was a bit of a worry seeing as it was now five o’clock and they could be closed, or I could get it done and then find that the boat service had by that time finished for the day. This would not be ideal as James and I would have no way of communicating with each other and would be in different countries, James with two bikes to ride, and me with all the money (I took his wallet with me to pay for the boat!)

Luckily, the whole process was pretty seamless. There was no queue for the boat and it only took a few minutes to cross the river. Back on the Thai side, the nice immigration guy was happy to put an exit stamp in my new passport and I was back over to Laos in a jiffy where we got our visas with no further drama. However, while I’d been to-ing and fro-ing from one country to another, James had been giving the bikes a cursory once over when he realised, to his horror, that the two bolts which hold his front wheel in place were missing! Seriously worrying; god knows how long he’d been riding like this (James: although it could only have been a couple of days as the bikes had recently been given a good going over.) The wheel could have come loose at any point, potentially wrecking the forks (and not to mention James if it was at high speed). Equally disturbing was the thought that someone had intentionally removed the bolts, either because they needed them or, a more sinister possibility that we didn’t like to entertain, removed them maliciously (James: the chances of both bolts coming loose at the same time are pretty remote!). It was typical that this should happen now, in a small dusty border town in a communist country with only small scooters, rather than during the last couple of months in Thailand where there seems to be a big bike shop on every corner. We’d wanted to head off early the next day but now we might have to spend hours running around trying to fix the problem.

There wasn’t a lot we could do straight away with the shops all closed for business for the evening so we booked into a guesthouse and had a much needed shower (the weather has been getting hotter and hotter recently as the ‘cool’ season – still in the mid 30s mind you – gives way to the hot season where the temperature reaches 40 degrees with very high humidity). Later on that evening as we sat enjoying a refreshing Beer Lao and banana/coffee shake (truly a winning combo, by the way), a motorcyclist went by on what looked like a bigger bike. James rushed off to chase him down and came back ten minutes later with the phone number of a local mechanic – great! The guy was a German ex-pat on an ex-German military KTM 400cc something or other…. Unfortunately, come morning we had no luck with the number but some locals soon pointed us in the direction of garage down the road. They rooted around in piles of scraps for any bolts that might fit (clearly not the most organised of establishments) and eventually came up with some that would do the trick. Phew! With that sorted, it just remained to obtain some third party insurance – an official requirement but very cheap – and by midday were on the road for our first day riding in Laos.

And what a fantastic day! We’re the first ones to say how much we loved our time in Thailand but there’s no denying that in all its perfection, it had felt more like a holiday than an overlanding adventure. Here we were in Laos and we felt truly back on track, riding on shoddy broken roads and getting waves and shouts from locals for whom a ‘big’ bike rumbling through the village was certainly not a regular occurrence! Life really seems incredibly simple in these parts, and certainly a world away from Vientiane (the capital of Laos where we’d been a few months back to do a Thai visa run). Most of the villages we rode through were little more than a scatter of bamboo huts on stilts, with a few goats and pigs thrown into the mix. Absolutely immaculate though, and always accompanied by friendly, smiling Laotians. All along the route, people could be seen beating freshly cut swathes of some sort of long grass onto the side of the road, presumably to rid it of pollen before using it as a building or weaving material (I was covered in prickly barbs by the end of the day!) We were quite shocked by how many children we saw out working, either beating grass or carrying loads in backpack type baskets, and we didn’t pass any schools, at least not obvious ones. (James: unsurprising as Laos average wage is less than $1000 per year, so all the family is expected to contribute).

At just under 200km and with sweeping rather than twisting bends, it was a comfortable day’s ride and we arrived in Luang Nam Tha soon after 4pm. Luang Nam Tha is actually further to the north east (very near the Chinese border), whereas we were essentially heading for Luang Prabang further south east from where we’d entered Laos, but the limited road network combined with northern Laos’ rugged mountains means that, unless you take a two day slow boat along the Mekong, you have to go north in order to eventually go south! Fine by us though; we could already tell that Laos was going to offer up some great riding so the more, the merrier. Luang Nam Tha is a simple town, centred around just one main road, but it has its fair share of guesthouses due to it being a trekking hot spot. We stayed at a beautiful place set back from the road, made entirely from teak with fresh, airy rooms and wide verandas. Not what we were expecting to find at all, and it was so nice we were tempted to stay longer. However, trekkers we are not and there was nothing else to stick around for, so the following morning we decided to ride the remaining 300km to Luang Prabang…

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Visa run to Vientiane

Thursday, December 9th, 2010

(Emily) The border crossing from Thailand into Laos was eeeeeea-sy! It only took about 15 minutes to exit Thailand (bear in mind the average we’ve experienced at border posts so far is about three and a half hours, with some taking five or six!) Getting into Laos took a bit longer, but most of that was queuing up to apply for a visa with all the other travellers. We did have a bit of a wait at customs after that so Darren went on ahead of us to find the guesthouse we’d booked in Vientiane, sharing a taxi with a couple of girls he’d been on the bus with, while we got the bike paperwork sorted. Eventually someone ‘official’ enough was found to stamp our carnets but we got the distinct impression no-one really knew what they were doing! It was strange to be riding on the right hand side of the road again for the first time since China but although it took a bit of getting used to, it was nice for me to finally be able to use my mirror again when overtaking (I broke my right one in the accident in Istanbul and have never got round to getting a replacement…) When we got to Vientiane – the small capital – we knew roughly where we were going but got caught on a one-way system. By weird coincidence though, when we pulled in to look at the map we saw the two girls from Hong Kong who Darren had shared a taxi with! They’d just dropped him off at our hotel so were able to tell us exactly where it was. Then, even bigger coincidence: while we getting our bikes unpacked outside the guesthouse, who should walk by but Fabian!!?!! Mad or what?! We hadn’t even known he was in the area but turns out, he was in Vientiane to get a longer Thai visa just like us.

So, with the added bonus of now having the Fabster with us, we went for a little wander, taking in a cool ancient temple, a shopping centre (?!) and a bustling market filled with lots of new and interesting produce we hadn’t seen before, most notably entire stalls dedicated to different deep-fried insects! From what we could tell, there were many similarities between Thailand and the almost ‘cosmopolitan’ Vientiane, such as the vibrant street food scene, monks clad in the ubiquitous yellow-orange robes and countless scooters zipping through the streets, but it also seemed much more reserved; people weren’t unfriendly as such, just less likely to smile and engage in conversation with a stranger. The country is still under communist rule and you are certainly left in no doubt about it; hammer and sickle flags flutter in every street and from every building (James: This determination to maintain a sense of ‘perpetual revolution’, i.e. keeping a sense of revolution when the revolutionaries have been the establishment for over 30 years, becomes something of a joke when you see a not so cheap but very gaudy American Hummer 4×4 parked next to one of the countless propaganda posters!) However, the French influence (Laos was once part of French Indochina) still pervades and the streets are filled with old French colonial buildings, quaint squares surrounded by cafes that wouldn’t look out of place in any provincial French village and shops selling baguettes! Numbers aside, tourism seems to have had less of an impact in the capital than it has in Thailand. It’s illegal for foreigners to have ‘relations’ with Laotian girls unless they are married so it was quite refreshing not to see the classic ‘fat old white man, childlike local girl’ combo which had been so prevalent in Bangkok and pretty much par for the course in Pattaya.

In the evening we found a fantastic restaurant, called Makphet, just around the corner from our hotel which works towards offering a sustainable existence to street-children by training them up as waiting staff and chefs so they can go on to work in hotels and restaurants around the country,(a bit like Jamie Oliver’s ‘15’). To date they have trained and provided skills to over 1400 street kids. They served up western/Laos fusion food at budget prices and practically every main dish could be ordered as a full or half portion; a great idea as it meant we could try even more (highly necessary when everything on the menu had us salivating)! The chicken, pumpkin and mushroom curry certainly went down a treat, as did the beef marinated in whiskey! (As you commented, Joanna, our schedule seems to lean heavily towards eating and drinking. It’s a hard life!)

The following morning we were up early doors to go and submit our visa application at the Thai embassy. James, particularly, didn’t appreciate the 7am wake up call as he’d hardly slept – we were quickly learning that he and Darren weren’t the most compatible of roomies! Many a ‘discussion’ had already been had over aircon: James hates it and it gives him a sore throat by the morning whereas Darren can’t sleep without it. Then there was Darren’s snoring and sleep-talking to contend with!! We decided that perhaps it would be prudent to get separate rooms from now on in order to keep everyone happy! Anyway, we left Darren sleeping and walked to the Thai consulate with Fabian, a forty-five minute journey in the end (about half an hour longer than anticipated!), not helped by missing the turning for the road we wanted (not many road signs here!). Hungry for some breakfast, we stopped in at a café that was offering free visa application forms but unfortunately, once we got into the consulate, we discovered they were the wrong ones, doh! The place was absolutely heaving – Vientiane is one of the most popular visa run towns being so close to the border – and we were somewhat dismayed to be allocated queue number 437 from the automated ticket machine (the display was currently showing 109!) Good thing we had our books with us as it was two hours before our number came up! And then we had to queue again to get a receipt for when we returned to pick them up the following day… ah, you’ve gotta love visa offices, everything is always so well thought through. By the time we got back to the hotel (after walking again – gluttons for punishment but the tuk-tuks were quoting too much), Darren was despairing as, after all we’d been gone five hours!

After a tasty, noodle-based lunch we bartered with a tuk-tuk for a good price to get us to Xieng Khuan Buddha Park, 25km or so out of the city. We’d seen a photo of the place on a postcard the previous day and it looked like a pretty unique spot. Conjured up by a shaman in the fifties, it basically comprises dozens of stone and concrete sculptures of Hindu and Buddhist deities; Xieng Khuan itself means ‘Spirit City’. Even though it’s a relatively modern construction, the whole park had a really ancient feel and it’s fair to say we all absolutely loved the place! It’s one of our favourite sights on the whole trip for its sheer eccentricity and Dali-esque surrealism, and of course the photo opportunities were more than enough to keep James and Fabian happy! We read in one of the guidebooks that it’s a favourite with children… what can I say?!

The following day, Darren headed off early to get back across the border by bus while we explored some local temples and markets with Fabian before getting to the consulate in time for the afternoon visa collection slot. As we’d half expected, the queue wound all the way down the street already but it was so hot out in the full sun we’d definitely made the right decision to join the masses only once the embassy opened. It took a good couple of hours to get our hands back on our passports, now complete with Thai visa sticker, but, after saying goodbye (until next time) to Fabian who was staying in the country to ride into southern Laos and then on to Cambodia, we made it back to the border for about half past three. I stayed with the bikes while James went off to find someone who could sign our carnet. He was absolutely ages and it turns out that, after struggling to find the ‘Carnet guy’, he’d had to go pillion on someone’s moped to the customs house on the road back towards the Buddha Park to find this one guy who knew what to do, only to find he wasn’t there either! In the end, James had to teach one of the staff (James: the Customs chief it turned out!) how complete our log books and sign our bikes out of the country! It is scary the amount of time wasted at borders due to officials not having a clue what they’re doing! In the meantime, I’d got chatting to a group of four Malaysian bikers who were doing a tour of Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. Lovely guys, and strangely, our second set of Malaysian bikers met at a border – we’d come across another four in no-mans land between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan (James: It seems we only bump into Malaysian bikers and overlanders when in no-man’s land, that they are always in groups of four and always ride sponsored Kawasakis!) Fortunately, this time the border guards were nowhere near as ‘sensitive’ as in central Asia so we were able to take photos and swap contact details. We certainly won’t be stuck for somewhere to stay when we get to Kuala Lumpur, especially as our sister-in-law, Jo, has family in Malaysia too!

It was only once we’d got to the Thai side and had produced our passports for inspection that James realised he’d only been issued a single-entry visa as opposed to the double entry we’d asked for (and I’d got.) B*****ks! An easy mistake to make; we’d checked them both back at the embassy, mine first. On seeing the ‘2’ written in mine, it was easy to read the ‘s’ for single as a ‘2’ in James’. It was really annoying. Not the end of the world as it got us back into Thailand fine this time and James would always be able to apply for another visa when we got to Laos to do it ‘properly’ after Darren had gone, but a pain and a rather stupid rookie mistake on our part. There was also a bit of a wobbly moment when customs only gave us 30 days on our bike papers (remember that the whole point of the visa run was to get a 60 day visa that meant we could leave our bikes in Thailand while visiting Vietnam…) I was about to have a bit of a meltdown – not least because all this time out of Darren’s riding holiday would have been for nothing – but James (hero that he is) talked them round to giving the bikes 60 days to match our visa. Phew!!! With that, we rode across the friendship bridge that spans the Mekong river back into Nong Khai and Thailand under the setting sun to catch up with Darren. He was on fine form, having been out for a little jaunt on his bike and sampling the guesthouse’s delicious home-made chocolate cake so we had a beer and breathed a collective sigh of relief. Now all the set-backs were out of the way, we could finally relax and Darren could enjoy his last few days on the bike without incident….