Bangkok (again!) and the road south

April 2nd, 2011

(Emily) Bangkok was only about 150km away from where we’d crossed in from Cambodia but we knew it could take hours to negotiate our way into the centre so given the hour, we resolved to find a guesthouse en route and do the remainder of the journey the following morning. Typically, for the first time and, of course, now that we really needed it, there were no hotels to be spotted along the way. The sky was looking decidedly grey and we really didn’t fancy making our way through the capital’s congestion in the rain but it looked like we might not have any choice. However, about 80km from Bangkok I spotted what looked like a little cluster of chalets near to the roadside on the other side of the highway. James was dubious as to whether it was actually a place to stay, being as we really were in the middle of nowhere, but we turned around to check it out and sure enough found a very recently constructed development of chalets, complete with their own individual driveways and landscaped lawns! You’ve got to love Thailand! We bartered down to a decent price, got some noodle soup from a shack further down the highway and settled in the for night before the rain started. Job done!

The next morning, it took us a while to find our way back to Lub-d, our favourite hostel in the Silom district of Bangkok, as the last few times we’d been to the city it had been by train and the first time, when we’d rode in, we’d come from the airport in the opposite direction. However, with James’ bloodhound skills and a little help from a passer-by (who, totally unprompted, told us how much she loved the king – obviously important information to impart to strangers to whom you’re giving directions!) we got there without too much trouble. We only intended to be in Bangkok for a few days, just long enough to get some jobs done. Our primary task was to go to the US embassy to speak to someone in person as we had lots of questions about getting our bikes into America that so far the internet had failed to answer (or rather it had come up with conflicting advice – useful!) It turns out that the guy we ended up seeing (not in the embassy itself but at Homeland Security across the road) was pretty much none the wiser and ended up just printing stuff off the internet to give to us! Oh well. In the end, the trusty HUBB (the Horizons Unlimited forum) came up trumps and someone with recent experience pointed us in the right direction. With that ball rolling (we had to start by applying to the US Environmental Protection Agency to ask for a letter of approval), we set about the rest of our to-do list: getting James’ shorts fixed (again – Marcus, he’s still wearing the ones you passed on to him and is loathed to let them go!), getting a new special non-standard sized batch of passport photos for our US applications, buying a road map for Malaysia, me having my haircut – I went to a place in one of the flash malls and was blow dried to within an inch of my life! (James: Em looked like something out of some early 80’s American show, think one of Charlie’s Angels!) and getting our recently purchased external hard-drive replaced (following a little incident in Laos where I ‘may’ have accidently dropped it…)

All these things were easy enough to sort in Bangkok, so within a couple of days we were good to go. We were also mindful that this time we were on the 15 day visa-waiver so needed to make sure we didn’t outstay our welcome (we had no time for a repeat visa run to Laos like we had to drag Darren along for the first time round!) However, we then heard from Dave (the Texan overlander we’d met in Thailand) and John and Kelly (biking couple we’d met around the same time) that they’d be turning up in Bangkok the following day so decided to wait around to see them… which turned into two days… then we randomly bumped into Will and Kate (not of the royal variety), a couple riding from Australia who had been in touch with us via email so wanted to stick around to see them… then Juan arrived and it would have been rude to leave straight away… You get the picture! Needless to say, some great nights out were had and many a beer imbibed. One night there were about ten of us overlanders crammed round the table – everyone just seemed to be in town at once!

The day came, however, when with just seven days left on our visa, we really needed to tear ourselves away and continue on towards Malaysia. Unfortunately, when we read the papers that morning, they were full of reports of widespread flooding and resulting road closures in the south, exactly where we were heading. Ah. We’d known that the region was suffering from unseasonably heavy rain but hadn’t realised that the situation had gotten so serious: the flooding and resulting landslides had destroyed homes, buried villages, caused the airports and ports to close and stranded thousands of locals and tourists on the islands of Phuket and Koh Phi Phi. The whole of southern Thailand had been declared a disaster zone and people were being advised not to travel in the area (most of the roads were closed anyway!) We deliberated for an hour or so (decision-making wasn’t coming easy to us in our hung-over state!) but in the end decided that we’d just have to go for it and if we had to, just as before on the trip, stop wherever there was a blockage or the road stopped and wait it out. If we stayed in Bangkok, not only would be it be more expensive (and we’d likely succumb to liver disease if we carried on drinking every night…) but we’d likely have to apply for a visa extension (not cheap) or do a visa run back into Laos or Cambodia (not again!) Once the old adage ‘let’s risk it for a biscuit’ (James: it’s always served us so ‘well’ in the past!….) had been uttered, there was no going back…

James navigated us out of the city as if he’d lived there all his life ( I just don’t know how he does it!) and we hit the road south. After a hundred kilometres or so, we started to look out for signs of flooding but there was nothing obvious yet. I was finding it a bit disconcerting being back on fast paced, heavily trafficked roads for the first time in a while and the grey skies weren’t helping (when we stopped for soup at lunch I had to put a long sleeved top on – it had been months!) James, meanwhile, was more disgruntled by the fact that our ‘beach week’ had been thwarted: aside from the sailing at Christmas, we hadn’t really had any beach action yet and had been saving it for this week when we made our way down to Malaysia. The plan had been to rise early each morning, follow the coastal roads and then find a quiet beach spot to stop off at each afternoon… not looking likely now! We stopped at a small gulf town called Cha Am that evening, which to all intents and purposes is a beach resort, but although we did have a stroll along the sand we were wearing fleece tops at the time! It turned out to be a lovely stopover though when, after balking at the prices of the hotels (which all seemed empty anyway), we were led by some locals to a small café/homestay up a side street where the lovely Ancham mothered us with tea and homemade profiteroles and made us feel right at home. It’s really great when you stumble a little gem like this and you’re reminded how you’re often rewarded for not booking anything in advance and just seeing what turns up when you get there. (James: just as well as we pretty much never plan ahead!)

Ancham kept calling us over to the tv whenever there was a news article about the weather and from what we could tell, it was still looking pretty bad to the south. More rain was forecast and we were convinced that we’d wake up to torrential downpours and have to stick around in Cha Am for another day (not such a bad prospect in light of Ancham’s homemade cakes but our visa expiration  was fast approaching). Neither of us slept too well, constantly mistaking the rustling of leaves for rain. In actual fact it was dry when we woke up and Cha Am was almost sunny but the sky to the south didn’t look too promising so we covered the backpack with a bin liner and donned our waterproof jackets liners. We fully expected to get wet it was just a question of how many kilometres we’d be able to get  under our belts before the inevitable happened and so we placed our bets. But despite constantly threatening, the rain just didn’t materialise and the 300km+ ride went pretty quickly – time flies when you’re storm dodging! Our target was Chumphon,  which we were led to believe was the start of the flood zone, so we figured that from there we’d get a good idea about situation further on (that is, if we managed to get as far as Chumphon!….) Sure enough, we began to spot telltale ‘large puddles’ about 50km away from the town but nothing disastrous yet and luckily the road remained clear. Even more fortuitous, the rain held off until we’d safely unloaded our kit into our comically small and windowless room and were parking the bikes up at the hotel opposite!

The next morning we hit the road once more, again hoping but not expecting to stay dry. We were amazed to clock 50km, then 100km without getting wet, although the evidence of flooding from the recent heavy rains was now much more apparent  – the lower ground to either side of the road was completed saturated, water rising half way up the tree trucks. At one point James yelled into the intercom that there was a large snake in the middle of the road. He wasn’t sure whether he hit it or avoided it (James: it’s hard to see the road below when you’ve lifted your feet and legs up to the tank to avoid getting a stray fang!) As usual, I didn’t see it! The flooding continued to get worse and worse, with many homes half submerged or even washed away completely. Many times we passed people by the side of the road who were evidently trying to retrieve belongings from the water. Very sad, and it certainly put things in perspective – all we were missing out on were some days on the beach, whereas here were people who’d lost everything they own. We got to about 10km from Surat Thani, our target town for the day and the reported epicentre of the flooding, and were just starting to think that the waters must have receded sufficiently for the roads to stay open when we hit a standstill. Now, in our experience the roads in Thailand are never congested (apart from in Bangkok) so we knew there must be trouble afoot. After parking up behind some lorries on the hard shoulder, James strolled off in the direction of the start of the jam to see what the deal was while I stayed with the bikes, and he returned fifteen minutes later to confirm what we had suspected – we’d reached the flood zone. Apparently, the approach to the upcoming flyover was impassable due to the river breaking its banks. Encouraged by the fact that people were hanging around, we waited for an hour or so too, hoping that it was a temporary delay but once we got curious and went to see the flooded area for ourselves, it became clear that we wouldn’t be going anywhere soon.

Looking for somewhere a bit more comfortable to wait, we made our way through the stationary trucks and cars and rolled into a petrol station forecourt. Unsurprisingly, we weren’t the only ones to seek shelter there but, despite the crowds, everything was remarkably calm and orderly:  the convenience store was already running low on stocks but still everyone bought only what they needed and waited patiently in the long queues; some families with elderly members had set up ‘camp’ in an unused shop front but again, no one else was clamouring to get their own spot despite the ever-increasing possibility that it would be at least morning before the road onward was cleared. It was really refreshing to witness this collective mentality of calm in the face of adversity  (we could just imagine the hard done by moaning and restless children’s screaming had we been back home…) and unlike us, for many people stranded there it was more than  a case of simply not being able to progress to their next destination. One woman, along with her gorgeous and impeccably behaved young daughter, lived in Surat Thani and was unable to get back home after visiting relatives further north. Many others were trying to get to the south to see family members who had potentially lost homes in the flooding.

The hours crept by and by late afternoon,  the inevitable rain had started. We’d been joined by another motorcyclist, a weathered old German biker with his equally weathered black Harley who said he’d been living in Thailand for almost 20 years because ‘there are less rules’ – turns out he was a fully fledged member of the Hell’s Angels and was ‘not welcome back with the German authorities’ whatever that means!… (At least, I think that’s what he said – he didn’t have a whole lot of teeth so it was hard to make out the words!) The three of us rode our bikes up onto the pavement by where we were sitting so we could keep a better eye on them while we waited. There wasn’t a whole lot of information coming through about the road block but just as it started to get dark, a police car with a loud speaker did a lap of the carpark. James went off to find someone who could translate and returned with the news that essentially, they couldn’t project when the road might be opened it (it depended largely on the rain ceasing and allowing time for the waters to recede) but that in any case, it would be happening that evening and that all roads south were closed. So, it looked like we’d be settling in for the night then……

For lastest photos click here.

Angkor Wat

March 24th, 2011

(Emily) It had only been a short stay in Phnom Penh but we’d visited the important sites of S-21 and Choeung Ek and we knew that with all the nice cafes, bars and shops so close to our guesthouse, our budget-conscious resolve would soon be in danger of weakening if we stuck around. All in all, it was better for both our wallets and our waistlines to move on! We rode out of the capital on a Sunday so the traffic, though equally chaotic, was slightly less busy than when we’d arrived on Friday evening. That said, we still encountered some maniacs once back on the main road and James had a particularly close call that saw him veering off into the dirt at 80kph when an oncoming truck took an inopportune moment to overtake. I had my heart in my mouth as I watched him struggling to keep control of the bike, convinced that he was going to come off, but he somehow managed to slow down before the wheels slid out from under him and soon joined me back on the road. Luckily, things became more sedate once we’d got a sufficient distance away from the city and we covered the 325km journey in good time, arriving in Siem Reap by mid-afternoon.

Siem Reap is the nearest town to Angkor Wat and, as a result of its serendipitous location next to one of the world’s greatest tourist attractions, it hosts more hotels and guesthouses than it does temples (quite a feat in southeast Asia!) There was almost too much choice but in the end we found a great place tucked away off the road with secure parking for the bikes, a leafy green courtyard and clean, if compact, rooms for $6. We were a little bit behind on the diary (who, us?!) so after a refreshing cold shower (we’d been riding in near 40 degrees humidity all day,) we sat down to type in the pleasing ambiance of the plant filled patio. We didn’t  get very far though, for who should turn up minutes later but Donato! Originally part of our China-Pakistan KKH group, our paths hadn’t crossed since early November in Agra when we visited the Taj Mahal together ( it seemed that we were destined to convene in locations of the ‘great wonders’ of the world!) We had a lovely evening catching up and hearing tales from his travels; it’s fair to say that Donato’s journey on his Harley has been about as filled with bike-related problems as ours has been trouble free! (James: not too surprising as it’s a brave man who attempts a journey like this on a Harley which certainly isn’t built for the job!) He’s pretty philosophical though, and accepts that it comes with the territory (unlike Juan who would swap his GS for one of our XTs in a heartbeat on the rough stuff, Donato remains steadfastly loyal to his beast!) In addition to the mechanical dramas which can always be sorted somehow or another, he did tell us about an altogether more alarming incident. Recently, when riding through northern Laos, he’d just parted ways with another two overlanders when he was stung by a flying insect as he rode along. He continued on his way but before long, started to feel faint and dizzy. He managed to pull in and stop at a small roadside village where he all but fell off the bike and within minutes he had lost his vision and was lying shaking on the ground – he said he truly felt that these were to be his final moments. There was no doctor around and no one spoke English but someone got him some asprin and water – not exactly first aid but luckily his condition started to improve and he seemed to have come through the worst of it. After resting for some time, he got back on the bike and woozily road back to the town he’d left that morning where he then spent 24 hours in hospital. Bloody hell! It seems he’d had a severe allergic reaction to the insect sting. Needless to say, he now carries antihistamines  and keeps his jacket zipped up when he’s on the bike! (After hearing his cautionary tale, I resolved to do the same but, of course, had forgotten by the next time we were on our bikes…)

The following day, it was James’ birthday! After a celebratory breakfast of omelette and baguette (admittedly, the same breakfast we had most mornings in Laos and Cambodia) we met again with Donato and all piled into a tuk-tuk to take us to Angkor Wat. Several fellow overlanders we knew had been through this way recently and we’d heard varying reports on the possibility of getting our bikes into the ancient site – John and Kelly had tried several routes in but been denied at every turn, Dean and Dave had tried a more sneaky approach and managed to get a few photos . We decided that it sounded like more trouble than it was worth and, although it would be nice to get that shot of the bikes in front of the main temple, we could live without it. We stopped at the ticket office where, after we parted with $60 for a three day pass (ouch!), they took portrait photos to print onto our tickets – tourism here is serious business! Then our tuk-tuk drove us the rest of the way down the road to the main entrance: I hadn’t quite realised it, even from looking at the guidebooks, but the whole temple complex is huge! We’d been planning to walk our way round the sites but it soon became clear that this would be an impossibility, especially in the current weather – it was over 40 degrees but even worse was the humidity. We’d only gone a few paces before the sweat was running down our faces (well, for me and Donato anyway – remember James and his non-sweating anomaly) which was pretty gross. We decided to just do a short route on foot that afternoon and arranged for the tuk-tuk guy to give us a tour the following day.

Anyway, ‘wat’ about the temples?! Well, the infamous Angkor Wat itself was the first one we could see and it is indeed pretty awe-inspiring. Nearly 1000 years old and remarkably well-preserved, it is certainly evocative of an ancient time. The outer wall is a continuous tableau of intricate carvings relaying battles and religious stories whereas inside, stone towers and endless arches give the impression of a labyrinth where you might easily get lost in time. The white sky wasn’t exactly playing ball for photos but James and Donato got pretty absorbed with their cameras nonetheless and when a trio of young monks obligingly appeared it made for some great shots. After cooling off over lunch (we’d managed to find an air-conditioned café amid the various food stalls), we went back into the sweat zone and walked over to Phnom Bakheng, a hilltop temple cited as the place to be for sunset. However, we were bemused to find, at the end of a long hot walk, that from the top of the stone steps, Angkor Wat was a mere speck in the distance visible only through the treetops so it wasn’t quite going to be the magical ‘sun setting over the temple’ that we’d anticipated. In fact, it wasn’t going to be a sunset at all because, as James pointed out, the sky was suddenly looking ominously full of gathering thunderclouds. We sat a while to rest and watch, amused, as hundreds more tourists clambered up the uneven and ridiculously steep steps to bag themselves a spot for sun down, completely oblivious to the fact that it was a non-starter. After a while, we left them to it – there must have been pushing a thousand people up there by this point – and sure enough, whilst on our way back to the guesthouse, we heard the first rumblings of thunder. We’d just got into our room when the heavens opened and we watched for two hours rain of an almost biblical nature (James: and had a quiet smile thinking about the chaos that must have been unfolding on top of the viewpoint as a thousand people descended the muddy slope to find just a couple of waiting tuk-tuks waiting at the bottom!)

The following morning, the plan had been to leave at 5am to catch sunrise over Angkor Wat but a combination of a late night celebrating James’ birthday and an overcast sky at dawn was all the excuse we needed to stay in bed! Later on though, we explored the temple complex a little more thoroughly thanks to our tuk-tuk chauffeur service! Once again we were amazed by how many structures are spread over the site, all impressive in their own way. The one I’d been looking forward to most was Ta Phrom, an Indiana Jones-esque temple over-run with vines and trees whose roots have ruthlessly pervaded the stone work to produce a wild, abandoned aura as if you might have just stumbled upon the ruin yourself. It was an atmospheric place, though the sense of wonder was somewhat diminished by the hordes of tourists and the huge work team currently doing extensive repair work to some of the outer walls. I have to say, I was also slightly disappointed that the temple wasn’t quite as overgrown as pictures had suggested it would be – apparently the undergrowth has been cut back in recent years, perhaps in an attempt to preserve what’s left of the temple from the destructive force of nature. That said, it was still pretty cool! Once again the humidity was almost unbearable so we relished the short rides from site to site when we could get a little wind in our hair (or beard, in Donato’s case!) One of the most impressive sights is the gated entrance to the walled city of Angkor Thom, where huge stone gods are posed in a perpetual tug of war with their stone demon counterparts, apparently representing the Hindu story of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. Hindu and Buddhist symbolism can be found  all over the temple complex, indeed  many of the ancient kings of the Khmer dynasty believed themselves to be earth-bound representatives of Hindu gods. Self-aggrandisement, much?!  

After another rainy night, our sleep interrupted at times by a deafening cacophony of what we assumed must be frogs, we woke up bright and early, eager to get going: we were returning to Thailand, our home from home! The map indicated that the road to the border was ‘under construction’ but we were pleasantly surprised to find that we had smooth tarmac the whole way, plus the added bonus of a return to more conventional driving by our fellow road users. It was pretty much one long, straight road for 200km so our last experience of Cambodia wasn’t exactly a thrill a minute but we did manage to get photos of some more ‘unusual’ moped loads such as a wardrobe and a couple of large, live pigs! We had a bit of a wait at customs on the Cambodian side of the border – it seemed that the entire staff had gone to lunch (there literally wasn’t one person around, we could have had the run of the place should we have wanted to!) – but once they’d returned and signed off our carnets it was a pretty quick process to leave. One notable thing was that the area between the Cambodian and Thai border posts – essentially no mans land – was chock full of casinos. Why? Because gambling is illegal in both countries so they solve the problem by building mega casinos in the space in between. So hypocritical!! Once we’d got through to the Thai side, a couple of police were throwing their weight around a bit and telling us we’d have to get a bus into Thailand to buy some insurance before coming back for the bikes… er, how about no? Having already been into Thailand at least twice, we knew this was rubbish but kowtowed a suitable amount to put them at ease and then promptly ignored their instructions, did the usual paperwork without them and went on our way. We’d thoroughly enjoyed our loop through Laos and Cambodia but it has to said were excited to be back in the ‘Land of Smiles’…

For latest photos click here.

Phnom Penh and the Killing Fields

March 22nd, 2011

(Emily) When we awoke the next morning in Kratie, Juan was still feeling in need of rest after the Cambodian wilderness adventure so he decided to stay on another day or so whereas we resolved to get ourselves to Phnom Penh. It was another boring day of riding on straight roads in the heat and dust (with yet more slash and burn in evidence), and this time we had the added delight of some pretty erratic driving from our fellow road-users, dare I say, ‘Indian-style’ driving… (James: Funnily enough we had both already commented on how ‘Indian’ it felt as we rode along. The people looked less south east Asian and much more southern Indian, and wore what could only be described as traditional southern Indian clothes.) It was the first time in a while that we had to be on high alert for kamikaze bus drivers and errant mopeds, and it’s amazing how the mental energy required drains you so much more that the physical act of riding alone. All in all, not a fun day on the road. About 40km from the centre of Phnom Penh, the traffic jams started so we were a couple of sweaty betties by the time we made it into the centre, though on the plus side, riding in through the traffic was a lot less scary than the more open main road had been – equally crazy driving but much more manageable at slower speeds. We found a street chock full of guesthouses but almost all of them were quoting $18 and above for a simple double (I guess that’s the way it goes being the capital city). We really didn’t want to head out into the traffic again to find another place which would just as likely be the same price (or more as you got nearer the river) so in the end, went back to the only place asking $10; we’d originally dismissed it as it had no parking, not even on the street. However, it was run by a bunch of giggling young women who were very friendly and they moved a bit of furniture around so we could ride in through the bar (James: always fun seeing the surprised look on the faces of any customers enjoying a beer!) We inched our way in and parked up against the wall right next to the pool table; result!

Phnom Penh itself is a lot more developed and cosmopolitan than we’d expected. Just the road where we were staying hosted about fifteen very cool European style café/bars and there were plenty of trendy clothes shops (‘Just keep walking, Emily’…) The guidebooks were full of temples and markets to visit but, being all ‘templed out’, the main thing that interested us was learning more about the terrible atrocities committed in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge during Pol Pot’s regime. James already knew quite a lot about the short but devastating rule of the Khmer Rouge (he is the fountain, after all) but I was fairly unaware of this period in history. Well, I was certainly to learn a lot over the next 24 hours. In 1975, following years of civil war, the Communist Party of Kampuchea (members of which were known as the Khmer Rouge), led by Pol Pot, took control of Cambodia and proceeded to subject the country to radical social reforms in an attempt to create a completely classless, self-sufficient, agrarian based society. The Khmer Rouge were extreme in their communist views and resorted to equally extreme measures in order to enforce their ideology. Within days of the start of the new regime, the entire population of all cities, including the capital, were forcibly evacuated (urban dwellers were seen as corrupted) and their inhabitants marched out to the countryside (regardless of age, sex etc) where they were made to labour on farms. Furthermore, money was abolished and books destroyed, whilst schools, banks and even hospitals were all closed down.

The Khmer Rouge was largely made up of uneducated rural peasants but increasingly, children were recruited into the regime as they were seen as ‘pure’, untainted by the greed, knowledge, and views of their ‘capitalist’ influenced parents and more likely to be utterly loyal to ‘Brother Number One’ as Pol Pot was known. These children were essentially brainwashed to reject the concept of family and were often ordered to kill relatives to demonstrate their devotion to the Khmer Rouge and its ideals. Stark evidence of further atrocities carried out by the regime are still to be found at Tuol Sleng prison, a fifteen minute walk from where we staying. Better known as Security Prison 21 (or S-21), this former high school building was commandeered and used by the Khmer Rouge to detain, interrogate and torture anyone seen as enemies of the regime. The crimes of those arrested?  ‘Capitalist activity’ (James: a sufficiently broad and generic term that effectively meant anything the Khmer Rouge wanted) or ‘free trade’, though the list of those deemed a threat quickly escalated to include anyone with any education or professional training; ‘signs’ of intellectualism included speaking a foreign language, having soft ‘unlaboured’ hands or even wearing glasses (the irony being that Pol Pot and other senior figures in the regime were educated at universities in Paris and spoke French). Other perceived ‘subversive elements’ included members of the former government, civil servants, teachers, policemen,  and those practising religion (Buddhists monks, Muslims, Catholics, and ethnic minorities from  Vietnam, China and Thailand were all arrested). In the four years of the regime, over 17,000 such people were held at S-21 alone (there were many other detention centres but S-21 being in the capital, is the most notorious). There they were subjected to torture and degradation before being summarily executed.

Today, S-21 is the ‘Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum’ – chillingly frozen in time to leave the visitor in no doubt of the horrors that occurred there. We walked through dozens of rooms containing just a iron bed frame, shackles and various crude weapons or implements for torture, while enlarged photographs on the walls depicted that very same bed with an emaciated, bloodied body slumped on it, not always clear whether alive or dead. The rooms have been left completely as found, including large ominous dark reddish-brown stains on the floors underneath and around the beds. Yes, it seems that the Khmer Rouge took real  pride in documenting their barbarity (they also took head shots of every single prisoner that entered the prison, now on display in the museum: row upon row of thousands of men, women, children (including babies) and even a few European faces all sitting in the same chair. Barbed wire is still in place along the front of the classrooms on the upper floors – installed to stop prisoners from taking the more favourable option of committing suicide by jumping – and many of the rooms contain hastily constructed make-shift partitions which formed tiny coffin shaped cells where prisoners would spend all day, everyday in complete silence, only being let out for interrogation or to be executed. It was a chilling and depressing experience to walk the halls where such atrocities had taken place just three decades ago.

Such was the volume of prisoners coming through the prison – let’s face it, pretty much anyone could be found guilty of some ‘crime’ or another, not to mention the fact that towards the end, increasing levels of mass paranoia even led to the most senior members of the Khmer Rouge itself being accused – the orchestrators of S-21 devised a convenient method for dispatching their victims. They were trucked out to sites outside of Phnom Penn at night, known collectively as the ‘killing fields’, executed and buried in mass graves. Some prisoners were even thrown in atop the bodies and buried alive, and babies were swung by their feet against trees, all to save bullets (James: and in the case of infants, to prevent them from growing up and avenging their parents). It was, and I’m aware of what an understatement  this is, horrendous. Following our sobering visit to Tuol Sleng, we went to one such site, Choeung Ek, located on the outskirts of the city, now a memorial dedicated to those who died so needlessly. Formally an orchard, it is thought that at least 17,000 people were executed at Choeung Ek, the vast majority of whom were prisoners at S-21. The site now is a peaceful oasis of green – at first glance a pleasant place to have a stroll in the shade of the trees – but closer inspection reveals placards marking dozens of sunken beds were thousands of bodies were discovered in unmarked mass graves, some containing the remains of several hundred bodies. Nearby there is also a commemorative stupa in the grounds where over 5000 skulls of victims are displayed. It was difficult to comprehend that this is all part of such recent history; perhaps deep down we want to believe that this kind of thing was done before our time, in less ‘enlightened’ ages, so are more shocked when faced with the harsh reality that it does (James: sadly we don’t learn and it continues, more recently in Rwanda, and currently in Darfur and DRCongo). Information at the small museum at the grounds was somewhat lost in translation and quite difficult to follow, and there seemed to be no information regarding the consequences for the perpetrators except to say that many of the regime leaders had died and that Comrade ‘Duch’, the chief of the S-21 prison, was put on trial for crimes against humanity in 2007. Overall, we didn’t really get the sense of an appetite to prosecute those involved. Perhaps the collective conscience of the country focuses on  honouring the memories of the victims rather than seeking persecution of the people responsible simply because so many Cambodians still alive today have culpability; anyone over the age of 40 or so is likely to have been involved to some extent on one side or the other.

Needless to say, we were shocked and saddened by everything we read and saw. Fortunately, the Khmer Rouge were eventually ousted in 1979 after the Vietnamese army invaded. With the liberation of the city imminent, the guards at S-21 quickly abandoned their posts for fear of capture, though not before following out orders to liquidise all remaining prisoners; Vietnamese soldiers arrived at the prison to find fourteen bodies all bearing signs of torture and a hasty execution. The graves of these last victims are situated in the former school playground, yet another reminder of the horrors that occurred there. Only seven people are known to have survived the living hell that was Tuel Sleng. All possessing skills of some sort another, they were picked out by high ranking officials to perform their bidding, such as painting portraits of the leaders, documenting prisoners’ statements or taking photographs. Their testimonies make for harrowing reading. To date more than 20,000 mass grave sites have been identified throughout the country, containing the remains of an estimated 1.3 million victims of the regime. By the time the Khmer Rouge were overthrown, almost 2.5 million Cambodians had died, either killed by the regime or due to disease and starvation, the result of the disastrous failure of Pol Pot’s  master plan. This figure becomes even more incredible given that the total population of the country had only been an estimated 8 million!

We left Phnom Penh, shocked and, unsurprisingly, subdued but certainly glad that we’d learnt more about what had happened to the Cambodian people and buoyed by the fact that on the surface, at least, they seemed happy and eager to move on towards a more positive future. We were also excited as our next port of call would be far less sinister – we’re were heading to Siem Reap and the world famous Ankor Wat!…

For recent photos click here.

Ban Lung and Kratie

March 20th, 2011

(Emily) What we really needed after our little adventure into the wilderness was a clean, friendly guesthouse with decent showers and good food but unfortunately, on arriving in Ban Lung, it soon became clear that the town was a bit of a sh*thole!! Never mind, never mind, we came to see the lake, remember, not the town. We went to the bank to finally get some local currency and while the boys were inside, I stood watching the bikes and was approached by a middle aged guy wielding business cards. ‘Looking for accommodation?’ he asked eagerly.  Somewhat guarded, I confirmed that we were and he proceeded to tell me about his newly opened hilltop hotel just five kilometres out of town. To be honest, it did look pretty tasty from the pictures. ‘But how much?’ I asked (it looked way out of our budget.) ‘Special offer – just $10 per bungalow.’ SOLD! It’s slightly more than we usually pay but much better than expected and hell, we deserved a little treat! Besides, we’d hardly spent a thing over the last 48 hours so it kind of evened out. It turned out to be one of my better decisions (perhaps redeeming my ill-fated ‘Let’s take this small road…’ of two days before); we followed the guy in his landrover out of town (no regrets there) and up into the hills to find said hotel which looked, to our relief, just like the picture on the business card (James: time and time again we’ve found that a photo is not necessarily a true guide to how a place will really look!). It was better, in fact! Gorgeous teak bungalows in perfectly manicured grounds, fresh white linen and beautiful views. A sign by reception indicated that prices were usually $35 (still a steal quite frankly) so we felt very pleased with ourselves.

Once we’d reappeared after a much needed shower (prompting the staff to do a double take – are they the same people who just turned up dirty and dishevelled on motorbikes?), we sat down to enjoy a long, cold beer in the glow of the evening sun. Already the last two days were a distant memory; did it really happen? (James: the aches, pains and general lack of energy were a decent reminder though!) Service at the hotel was super attentive and we took full advantage of the complimentary fresh roasted peanuts – we were the only guests and they seemed quite happy to keep refilling the bowl (James: this might sound like a minor and inconsequential detail to you but the nuts were the main subject of conversation that evening!). Despite having not eaten anything but a packet of biscuits since breakfast the previous day, peanuts were all we could manage at the moment – our bodies had moved beyond hunger! We decided that the warmth of the evening air, the setting sun and our elegant surroundings all combined to make this very much a Gin and tonic moment – amazing what you can convince yourself you ‘deserve’ after a few days of hardship (no wonder our friend Dean drinks so much beer – he’s constantly at the end of a long day off road!) But sadly, the plethora of spirits behind the bar did not include gin so we were denied (probably just as well – unlike the rooms, the drinks menu was not offering discount prices!) No matter, the beer was going down nicely!

Not long after a simple dinner of mixed fried rice, we retired early and were pretty much gone by the time our heads hit the pillow; aside from being woken in the early hours by the extra-ordinarily loud mating call of a large lizard who’d taken residence behind part of the wooden frame in our bungalow, it was one of the best night’s sleep we’d ever had. The next morning we took things easy but eventually rode down to the lake at Boeng Yeak Lom, the description of which – ‘a crystal clear, perfectly circular crater lake and the best natural swimming pool in Cambodia’ – is what had us coming way out east in the first place. James jokingly told me that it’d better be worth it after the palaver it took to get us here… and it’s a good thing he was joking (James: er, was I?!) because it really wasn’t!! Crystal clear? Was it b****cks! I mean, it was nice enough, and we had an enjoyable dip, but worth going 500km out of your way? Not so much! Still, we all agreed that we were glad we’d come out this way – it had certainly provided some great experiences and there was no doubt that we’d had a taste of rural Cambodia at its finest!

Two nights relaxing in the luxury of the hillside retreat did just the job after all the excitement of our little detour but now it was time to hit the road again. We knew that the route west from Ban Lung back to the main highway south was dirt track but the guys at the hotel assured us it was pretty good so we parted ways with Juan, who went off ahead planning to blitz it all the way to the capital Phnom Penn (500+km away) that day, and started on our way. Leaving the outskirts of Ban Lung, it was funny to see the tarmac end abruptly and the dirt begin – here we go! The road has been ‘under construction’ for the last three years but there certainly wasn’t much indication of any work going on along the way (I guess that’s why it’s taking so long…) However, despite the lack of paving, it was in essence a main road – wide and fast with plenty of trucks to kick up dust into our faces. We pootled along at about 70kph; we could have gone faster, and indeed Juan is an advocate of hurtling along at top speed on this sort of road as it’s actually more comfortable to fly over the bumps and stones, but occasionally there were patches of gravel hidden amid the general dirt so we wanted to give ourselves time to clock them and slow down (in fact, we heard from Juan later that he nearly had a serious accident when caught out by one). After 60km or so, about half way to the main road south, the road suddenly became much narrower and bumpier and we realised that no other vehicles had passed us for ten minutes or so. It was really strange – we were sure there hadn’t been any junctions or turnings but it really didn’t seem like the same road we’d been on all morning. We pulled over to consult the map but sure enough, this was the only road west. Eventually, a car came in the other direction and we waved them down to ask if this was still the way to Kratie and Stung Treng: affirmative. Oh well, we shrugged and set on our way again, wondering where on earth all the traffic had disappeared to. Bizarre!

It’s amazing how quickly you forget things– when we’d been struggling in the sand a few days before, we’d have given anything for this sort of road but now we were cursing every bump as the rutted track jarred our spines to pieces. There’s no pleasing some people! Not a moment too soon, we finally got to the junction where we turned south onto perfect tarmac – yes! From this point we made good progress and were in Kratie, a sleepy town by the Mekong and one of the possibilities for a night stop, by 2pm. We found a stall for lunch and a fruit shake (I may not have mentioned it before but Juan and I were literally obsessed by the yummy fruit shakes in Laos and Cambodia, carelessly disregarding the inevitable tummy troubles due to the unfiltered water!) and discussed our options. Kratie didn’t seem to have huge appeal so I was all for cracking on to Kompong Cham, the other potential night stop… until we looked at the map and saw it was still 250km away (as the crow flies it was a lot nearer but on closer inspection we saw that the road would take us on a much longer route). Sod that!! So it made sense to stop here despite the earliness of the hour, and anyway, I’d been having some problems with my bike – it was cutting out every time I came off the throttle to change down a gear – which we could do with sorting before heading off again (not to mention my bent handlebars!) We asked about rooms at the four or five hotels located handily across the street and settled on a $7 double.

Later that afternoon, we doing a bit of maintenance on the bikes – oiling chains, tightening bolts and addressing my stalling problem  – when another overlander rode in through the gates. Coolio! It was Masa, a Japanese guy on a very beat up and well worn Honda Africa Twin, who’s been on the road for three and half years and counting. (Funnily enough, it was the second Japanese overlander we’d met called Masa – the first being the round the world ‘walker’ we’d met way back in Montenegro.) He’s a lovely guy and while we were chatting to him, who should turn up but Juan!! Of course! We were a bit confused – hadn’t he left before us that morning with the intention of bombing it to Phnom Penn – but it turns out he’d he stopped for lunch in Kratie, got chatting to some fellow Spaniards and was still there three hours later! It’s fair to say that our four big, muddy motorbikes got more than a little attention lined up as they were along the front of the hotel! We’re always pleased to see Juan but it was particularly fortuitous this time as we could ask him about my engine problem (Juan’s a mechanic by trade and worked for Yamaha back in the day!) He suggested we start by looking at the air filter – perhaps with all the dust from the last couple of weeks, it was having difficulty getting enough air to the engine. It did indeed look a bit clogged up and Juan was horrified to discover that we’d only cleaned our filters three times before on the trip… apparently we should have been doing it every 5000km, oops! Luckily we had the right stuff to clean them with so we set to work, doing James’ too for good measure, and sure enough, the engine seemed to run a lot more steadily after that. Thanks, Juan! Masa, who designed engines for Honda, confessed that  he was even worse when it came to maintenance so that made us feel a bit better! (James: Juan, ever the mechanic, could only shake his head!)

Later on we found a bar selling cold beer (and G&Ts – it was run by an American ex-pat who was camp as Christmas! The on sale calendars of ‘Kratie’s Handsome River Men’ were somewhat disturbing!! ) and the four of us had a chilled evening talking bikes and swapping stories. The next morning we would do the remaining stint to the capital, Phnom Penh…

Latests pics.

Emily has a cunning plan: part 2

March 18th, 2011

(James) It soon became clear that crossing the river hadn’t brought us back to civilisation as we’d hoped; within 100 metres we were riding along a narrow rutted, dusty track that clearly didn’t get much use any more. Sighing, we resigned ourselves to more of the same but after just 400 metres Juan, the lead bike, came to a sudden stop. By the time we’d pulled up behind him, he was shaking his head. In front of us, for as far as we could see, was sand, thick thick sand! This was not good. We’d had pretty thick sand on occasion before, but this was ridiculous. It was not only deep but fine enough to shift around a lot. Sand is a nightmare to ride on as your front wheel doesn’t ever go where you point it, it just slides with the shifting grains. The only way to ride it is to give it enough power to allow the rear to dig in, which lifts the weight off the front wheel. Once the front is ‘light’, it’s about keeping the power on (even if you feel the front wheel being ‘guided’ off course) and using your body and the power from the rear wheel to keep you going straight. It’s a tough thing to get your head around when you first get to it (Em: tell me about it!) because it’s counter-intuitive to hit the power when your brain is telling you to take it easy. We all knew that for however long this lasted, we’d be spending most of the time in first gear with our feet down on the ground, just paddling along trying not to fall off. Hopefully it wouldn’t last too long….

Sadly it did, and all too soon Emily became our first faller of the day. She was, of course, fine – she’s amazing unaffected by falling off road and no longer thinks that a fall is because she’s not up to it – and was straight back on the bike (Em: once we’d managed to get it upright again!). The sand just kept on going, limiting our speed to less than a walking pace which, given the heat, humidity and the concentration required, was absolutely draining. When the sand did eventually end a kilometre or so later, the track became incredibly uneven with ruts over a metre deep (Em: out of the frying pan, into the fire!). Riding on the top of the ruts was impossible as we couldn’t put our feet down so we had to ride through them requiring us to raise our feet up to ground level. This, of course, other than looking completely ungainly, gave us little control – not ideal as so deep were the ruts that the bottom of our panniers were grounding out. After 200 metres or so, the ruts came to an end only to be replaced once more by narrow tracks covered in thick sand. We battled on, riding in bursts of ten to twenty metres and experiencing a lot of near falls. After what seemed like an age, Juan stopped under the shade of a tree and asked if we could have a break, something we were all more than happy to do. Whilst the last of the water was shared around, I looked at our progress – it didn’t make particularly good reading. In the last hour we’d managed a staggeringly difficult 4km! We lay on the ground for five minutes or so before I tried to get everyone to get moving again (it was all too easy just to lay there and the idea of even putting our jackets and helmets back on really wasn’t appealing!) We continued on and managed a couple more kilometres before stopping for  another break. This became the pattern for the rest of the afternoon. We’d already given up any hope of reaching Ban Lung that day and had set the next village of O-Samong as our target for the evening.

As the afternoon wore on, fatigue, brought on in no small part by the workload, heat and lack of any food or water, became our biggest problem and the gaps between our breaks decreased. Mistakes were also starting to creep in and we were reduced to getting the bike just five metres or so before stopping and going again. We continued to have plenty of ‘near misses’ and before too long Juan went down. In our shattered states, it would take both Em and I to help Juan pick his heavy GS back up so he just sat thereby his bike for a couple of minutes whilst Em and I tried desperately to find somewhere suitable to put the side stand down on one bike, then find some stones or wood to place under the side stand of the other bike before we could help. Juan, drenched in sweat, was a wreck so we agreed to stop for a couple of minutes again (our breaks were now coming every 500 metres or so). We hadn’t gone too far when Em went down again and we again agreed to stop. Juan and Em both remarked that had we had water, we would have happily stopped and camped right where we were but both map and GPS indicated that O-Samong was just three not-so-short kilometres away. It was now gone half four and we knew that if we could do the last 3km in an hour we’d be in a better position with the possibility of a shop selling water and even a guesthouse. We pressed on through more deep sand after about 40 minutes, the sand turned to harder packed dirt and we saw a couple of dwellings through the trees. To say we were relieved would be a mild understatement. We rode through the village and to the top of the river bank where a  few curious villagers stood watching us in amazement. We tried to ask if there was a shop, somewhere to get food or even a guesthouse but were met with the kind of blank looks that suggested they didn’t even know what a guesthouse was! A quick look round established that we were out of luck and, seeing that there was no bridge across the river, we rode down the bank to find a fording point.

The river itself was slow flowing and about forty metres wide but didn’t appear to be any more than waste height at its deepest point, with the odd sand bank creating an island mid stream (thank god it’s the dry season and levels are low!). It was now about 5:30 and the whole village appeared to be down at the river washing, collecting water and playing so our arrival at the water’s edge caused something of a stir. We got off the bikes to find a suitable spot to cross and luckily a man on a scooter (we’d have all given anything to be able to ride that little scooter the rest of the way to Ban Lung!) approached from the other side and managed (just) to cross near us, indicating to the crossing point with the hardest ground and, rather importantly, the least chance of underwater rocks – falling off in the water would mean flooding the bike and killing any electronics that weren’t kept in waterproof panniers such as the cameras and laptop. Juan went first and indicated that the riverbed was smooth, if a bit soft (just give it some beans then!) so we followed across. By the time we were all over, a large crowd of perhaps forty villagers had gathered and Juan had discovered one teenager who could speak a bit of English, enough to tell him that there was no shop and no guesthouse anywhere nearby (and the food situation was also a bit of a grey area). Great!

We quickly agreed that with darkness approaching and our energy reserves nearly depleted (Juan was quite literally a broken man!) we were going no further and so, having got permission from some locals (it helped that most of them were standing watching us so we didn’t have to go looking for someone in charge!), we pulled our tents out and began to put them up, an act that astounded our audience! Juan, still unable to move, just sat there for ten minutes before summoning the strength to make camp. With tents up, we left Juan to sit on a log while we walked upstream a little (the kids all ran screaming and laughing as soon as we started to walk towards them!) to what appeared to be a spring on a sandbank in the middle of the river and began filtering some much needed drinking water – again an act that shocked the crowd of locals that followed us, partly because of the small hand pump we were using, but mostly, I’d imagine, because they couldn’t understand why we weren’t just drinking the water directly!

Having filled a couple of bottles we headed back to give some to Juan, who was now sat alone in a near vegetative state. Apparently the guy who spoke English had walked off into the trees – along with any chance we’d had of getting some food! Still, at least we had water. All we wanted to do now was have a wash but we were still such a novelty that we’d have to wait until dark when hopefully our audience would go home for the night. Fortunately night falls fairly rapidly at this latitude; by 7pm it was pitch black so Em and I waded into the river near the fording point where there was a boulder to put our towels and soap on. We took turns – Em washed first with me on lookout duty and then it was my turn – and that’s when the comedy of errors began…..

Having stripped off  (don’t try picturing it – it was pitch black!), I was standing in the stream washing the accumulated dirt and sweat from my hands when suddenly my wedding ring slid off my finger! (Our diet on this trip means that I’m quite literally half the man I used to be!) Cursing, I quickly but carefully got down on all fours and blindly felt around the riverbed for it. Em went back to the tent for a torch and soon returned with Juan to help look. Juan, of course, didn’t know I was butt naked; a fact that didn’t remain unknown for long! So, there we were the three of us, two torches and me, on my hands and knees in my birthday suit scrambling around in a river! Just when I thought my humiliation couldn’t get any worse, we heard the unmistakable sound of a scooter and seconds later, not one but two came into view and rode down the bank to the fording point, which, of course, was right next to me! All I could do was sit down to retain some degree of modesty! All three of us were in hysterics as the scooters rode by, I hope we didn’t offend anyone (Christ knows what they’d have thought had they’d seen us seconds before!) After they’d disappeared up the other side, we continued the search but it was fruitless and we had to give up. Even though the ring was only very cheap (bought specifically for the trip at Covent Garden market), I was sad to have lost it but Em was pretty philosophical (frankly, I think she thought it was worth it for the laugh that the whole sorry episode had provided at the end of what had been a really tough day.) Then, just to rub salt in the wound, as I got up to walk back to the bank, Em (still on torch duty) noticed that I’d sat in what must have been an old oil rag or filter and had thick oil all over my backside! Not exactly my finest hour!……

With nothing else to do, and being totally shattered, we were all asleep by 8pm and woke at dawn the next morning  eager to get going. Our early departure was made quicker by the fact that there was nothing for breakfast and, whilst packing the tents up, we kept trying to ask people from our audience if the road improved from this point or stayed the same. The few who understood our sign language smiled and indicated ‘yes, it’s good’ but we’re old hands now and knew all too well that this was in all likelihood a case of someone saying what we wanted to hear (people throughout Asia say yes if you ask a leading question so as not to disappoint you – sweet but not particularly helpful!) After I’d given a regretful glance back towards the river to say one last goodbye to my wedding ring (cheap it may be but I’d become rather attached to it), we were ready to hit the road by 7am, which would hopefully give us a chance to get some distance under our belts before it got too hot. Upon riding up the bank, our worst fears were confirmed when we were met with yet more sand – it was clear that we, quite literally, were not out of the woods yet! There was still 80km to go to Ban Lung, and 40km until we reached the next river where, on the other side, there would be a main road.  According to the map, between us and the river there were three villages, each about 10km apart. All we could do was set the first village as our target and hope that they had water or food there (Em: despite the long rest, we were still completely lacking in energy. We’d have given anything for some noodle soup!)

We battled on through the sand covering a tough six kilometres in the first hour (yes, a mammoth 4 miles!) before taking a much needed break. Not taking any chances, we rationed the water and not wanting to waste any of the cooler part of the day, set off in anticipation of the settlement ahead and the possibility of a drink and some much needed food. The ‘village’, when we got to it forty minutes later, was a crushing disappointment; well, what  was left of it was anyway. All that remained of said village were a couple of long abandoned huts on stilts that were leaning badly and would surely collapse any day now. We just laughed (Em: somewhat hysterically), and continued on our way – now we understood why this was an ‘ex-road!’ The lack of food and water was clearly starting to get to us as both our strength and our concentration were faltering and more mistakes were creeping in. First Emily went down in a deep patch of sand, and then a kilometre or so later so did I. Just twenty minutes later I was down again, this time having been propelled into an old thorn bush (always nice!).  The second village when it came was much like the first so we continued on having already prepared ourselves mentally for the fact that village number three would be no different.  At this point, the terrain started to vary a bit more. We were still getting deep sand and rutted tracks (they were getting worse leading to much scraping of panniers!) but now the jungle started to close in on us much more (offering us some valuable shade) and we found ourselves having to ride down very steep banks, through old dried out riverbeds and up steep banks on the other side. As we approached each new bank, we’d hold our breath as they were so steep that until we were right on top of it, it appeared as if it was a sheer drop. Too steep to brake on, we’d pick a line and roll down, trying to maintain momentum for the other side. Em came a cropper on one of these when the bank back up required a sharp turn midway up. In true style, she gave it the beans only for her handlebar to catch the side of the bank, which then threw her into it – it looked spectacular! (Em: my handle bars were twisted out of alignment after that – not ideal when you’re riding slowly and doing lots of nifty manoeuvres round obstacles!)

We stopped once more with three hours gone, during which we’d managed 24km and all of us had fallen at least once. We were taking regular breaks not only to rest ourselves but to allow the bikes to cool down. Juan (who had laid his roll mat out on the floor such was his need to lie down) was starting to have concerns about the abuse the clutch on his BMW was getting – at least our XTs could cope at very low speeds in first gear. Whilst we were sitting there, a local came along on a little scooter with motocross tyres – it was the perfect bike for here and we’d have all gladly swapped at that moment, but what caught our interest was the large polystyrene box leaking water on the back. In it were dozens of little foil bags containing fruit drinks (Em: the sight of which was like a chest full of gold!). We asked how much they were but there was obviously a language barrier (not to mention the fact we still had no local currency!).  Juan then showed him a $20 bill and the guy was soon piling drink after drink into our hands (Em: perhaps it’s his army survival training from back in the day but James was saying the situation wasn’t desperate enough to fork out so much money – sod that, Juan and I would gladly have paid $20 for just one drink!!) The guy must have seen the desperation in our faces and could quite easily have fleeced us but, after we indicated that ten pouches should be sufficient, he counted out some Cambodian riels and handed them back to Juan. So honest! He rode off and left us slicing the corners off and drinking one after the other! These sickly sweet drinks are genuinely disgusting, but right at that moment, they were one of the nicest things we’d ever tasted!

With spirits lifted and sugar rushes all round, we continued on our way. The track offered up a rare stretch of shallower sand and we managed a record breaking 4km before the next stop. We were now all keeping a keen eye on our odometers and knew that when they reached 42km for the day, we would be at the river. That magic figure was getting tantalisingly close. We were just into the low 30kms when suddenly the narrow track became hard packed and we were able to get the bikes into 2nd gear (still only doing about 15kph but beggars can’t be choosers!). Moments later we spied a roof top in the trees. We were trying not to get too excited as we’d been here many times before on the trip, but the track stayed solid and when we saw a pick-up truck pass what must be a junction up ahead, we knew we’d made it. We got to the junction, and sure enough there was beautiful smooth red dirt in both directions and, more importantly – other vehicles! We stopped at the junction, parked the bikes and walked straight to the nearest stall that not only had cold drinks but packets of biscuits – we ate one each (Em: a packet that is, not just one biscuit!).

Fully refreshed, we continued on the beautiful road that ran alongside the river enjoying the novelty of third gear and hoping that the inevitable small riverbeds that would be running down to the main river would have working bridges over them. They did, and just twenty minute later we arrived in the main village where the crossing point was. The boat dock was at the bottom of a ridiculously steep 30 metre dirt ramp and given that it would be impossible to park on it, we sat at the top to wait for the boat to come back over. When it came over, we could see that, although still the usual  kayak affair, it was a little bigger so would fit all of us on at once. I went down first, and quickly found that there was no traction. The brakes were pretty much ineffective and I started to skid and slide down towards the water. In the end I had to settle for a rapid skid all the way down and then release everything and roll on to the boat at speed, hoping I’d be able to stop before exiting the other side and into the river! I made it, but only just. Having seen this near miss, Em decided that she’d let someone else do her bike (Em: aren’t I generous !) and when Juan’s turn finally came, I had to drag along behind him acting as an anchor. With everyone on board we headed across, excited by what might be on the other side. The dock, when it came, was an ‘interesting’ one. A narrow plank ramp sat in the water at the edge of a sandbank which our boat pulled up next to. We lined the bikes up on the boat before riding down the plank on to the sand bank which left us just 300 metres of thick sand and a couple of small water crossings to contend with! We hopped from one sand ‘island’ to another and suddenly we found ourselves climbing off the dock and onto a village street complete with cars and  trucks! (Em: hurrah!) We stopped and rewarded ourselves with another cold drink and, having confirmed that we were just 40km of good solid dirt road from Ban Lung, sat there under a tree and reminisced about the last two days. Juan, who has years of off-roading experience, paid Emily quite the compliment, saying that anybody who could do what we’d just done was ‘a f**king good rider’!! I couldn’t agree more, but it meant more coming from Juan than me, as there was no bias, and as anybody who knows Juan will testify, he doesn’t say that much and rarely gives out compliments. 

We set off and just as we’d hoped, the dirt road was, for the most part, fine (Em: just the usual dust clouds and a few maniac drivers!). Just an hour later we arrived on the outskirts of Bang Lung where, in line with the first building, the tarmac started. We all stopped and just stared at it. We’d originally expected to be here at lunch time on the Monday but here we were at almost 5pm on the Tuesday  – tired, hungry and absolutely exhausted, but despite everything, filled with a sense of adventure and achievement. To be honest, we’d sort of assumed that the ‘adventure’ part of our trip had ended when we’d arrived in southeast Asia and that it would tend to have more of a ‘holiday’ feel to it from that point on (that’s why we’d given away our emergency rations!) so it felt nice to have one last little wilderness adventure before we headed back to the developed world – well, unless that is, Em’s put in charge of navigation again!…..

Photos for this entry here.

Emily has a cunning plan – part 1….

March 17th, 2011

(James) Now that we were in Cambodia, our intention was to head to the far north east of the country to visit the small town of Ban Lung which, we were led to believe, boasted a lake of such startling clear waters that it alone justified our riding almost 500km out of our way. Our plan had been to ride the 70km or so south on the main highway to Stung Treng before turning east on to highway 19, the 150km dirt road that connected Ban Lung with the outside world. We were just about to head off after completing the border formalities when Em, looking the map, (Em: a rarity in itself!!) had a suggestion; ‘Instead of riding down to Stung Treng and then heading east, why don’t we take this small road east, it can only be about 5km from here?’ She wasn’t joking when she said it was a small road; it was marked as a ‘minor road, cart track’ – never a good sign, but at least the map indicated that there were two or three villages along the way where we’d be able to get lunch. (Em: the new route meant that we’d be doing a circuit round to Ban Lung then back again, rather than taking the same road to and from – surely preferable? And Juan agreed with me…)

We set off and having located our side road, turned off the main highway to find ourselves straight away on dirt road. Fortunately it was hard packed and pretty smooth for the first 20km but after that it gradually started to narrow and deteriorate and before long, we were riding along the top of a raised embankment. It occurred to me as we rode along the top, that our ‘road’ might not be quite what we’d hoped (we were hoping for an emphasis on the ‘minor road’ rather than the ‘cart track’ element) – the fact that it already seemed highly unlikely that any 4×4 could drive here wasn’t a promising sign. Confirmation, when it came, left us in little doubt. A ten metre break in the embankment, spanned rather worryingly by a very fragile, not to say narrow, bamboo footbridge. If it was looking bad for us, it was worse for Juan whose big BMW weighs maybe 350-400kg (with rider). We watched Juan walk over to the bridge and conduct some standard tests to gauge structural integrity (jumping up and down on it and shaking it from side to side to see how much it moved!) The results were not promising, but Juan decided to give it a go and very gingerly edged forward. Ordinarily I’d tell you how we held our breath and watched as the bridge inevitably buckled under his weight (which it did) but our concern was focused more on the way the bridge started to lean to the side! It really did look like it was about to keel over, taking Juan and his bike down with it into the dry rock bed five metres below. Two thirds of the way across, he came to a point where there were a pair of bamboo struts sticking up and had to come to a standstill. They were almost exactly the same width apart as his panniers. A centimetre narrower and he’d have not made it and I’d have had to add my weight to the bridge (yeah, yeah, very funny!) to try and pull them apart, not something I wanted to do as they, no doubt, were an important part of the bridge’s structural strength. As it happened, Juan was able to very gently ‘lean’ a pannier up against one of the struts, moving it enough to allow him to squeeze through and make it to the other side.

Next it was my turn (I tend to go through first so I can give a rolling commentary to Em via our intercom – great when I make it, but we also get to hear each other’s grunts and screams when things goes wrong!) Having seen Juan scrape through, I was already preparing myself for the bamboo struts but first I had to get there! When crossing dodgy little bridges and spans like this, the temptation is to either stop or try to get it over and done with by just giving it some beans. In reality both are pretty bad ideas. Stopping not only has you keeping the bike’s combined weight all on one spot for longer than necessary, it also means you have to put your feet down which either changes how you’ve spread the balance of weight on the bridge or risks you putting your feet down where there is no ‘floor’.  If you try ‘flooring it’ the bike’s weight transfers more to the rear and the drive of the rear wheel can pull the span apart ending your day very quickly. In the ideal crossing, you maintain a nice, slow but constant and predictable pace that doesn’t stress one part of the bridge more than any other. Sadly, this was not going to be possible here; although I had the bike rolling nice and gently across the bridge, I knew that I was going to have to stop mid way. I’d already chosen the spot where I was going to put my feet down (the planks that moved least when Juan was on the bridge) and coming slowly to a stop was able to edge the bike through  and up the other side. Next up was Em who, although having the advantage of having been talked through it all, had also had to sit, wait and watch. It’s never ideal going last as you have time to let all sorts of thoughts go through your head, but she made it look easy (which it most definitely wasn’t!) and along she came. Not having panniers to worry about, she rolled across the bridge and up the other side, let out a breath and said something along the lines of how she dearly hoped that that was the only one of those we’d be having to cross today (this being a family friendly site, I’ll spare you the exact quote!). Em, it would seem, is not afraid to tempt fate……

We continued on our way and the track continued to deteriorate to the extent that we were struggling to get out of first gear, never ideal for bike or rider when the temperature is a very, very humid 40 degrees (104F). We’d originally thought that we’d be sitting in Ban Lung with our feet up in little more than three hours but the last 10km from the ‘bridge’ had taken us an hour and we still had 100km to go including several river crossings for which there were no marked bridges! In the early afternoon, we arrived in a very small village and were relieved to find a woman selling bottles of water – we’d run out at least an hour ago. We continued on and soon reached the first of the aforementioned rivers where the track turned to run parallel with the river, just inside the canopy of the jungle, which offered us the odd bit of shade. Then, all of a sudden, the track abruptly stopped and the only way onward seemed to be through some trees to our right (confirmed by Juan’s gps). Getting off the bikes, Juan went to inspect the tree route on foot whilst Em, having been deemed the least ‘threatening’ (it was pretty remote), was ‘chosen’ to go and ask the small smattering of villagers who had been watching us with curiosity through the undergrowth . While we’d been mulling it over, the small crowd of maybe twenty or so villagers, mostly men and children (the women were probably working, they normally are!) had ventured closer towards us to see what these strange foreigners were doing. However, on seeing Em turn towards them (she had, for the record, removed her jacket and helmet!), they all turned and ran shouting, back into the tree line! I should make this clear, they didn’t shyly retreat – they ran in what can only be described as terror! It was a bizarre sight, and a slightly surprised Em turned to us as if to say ‘what now?’ She tried once more and again the same reaction but did eventually manage to corner a man who suggested we were heading in the right direction – although I’ll confess, it did cross my mind that he might be agreeing just to ensure that he avoided any possibility of disappointing the scary monster that is Emily Littlewood!

Having negotiated a ‘path’ through the trees, we weren’t surprised when after just a few hundred metres we came to our next obstacle – another ‘bridge’ much like the previous one but this one was spanning a gap where flood water had eroded the bank. Leaving our bikes at the top of the slope, we walked down to test it and then, seeing that it hadn’t collapsed under our own weight, agreed to go for it (our quality control standards may have been influenced by the fact that we were already shattered and had no intention of turning round and going back!) Once again it was heaviest bike first so Juan got ready but the approaching slope to the bridge (which this time was perhaps eight metres below ground level) was really steep and filled with deep sand, which for those who don’t know, is up there with wet clay as the worst thing to ride on. It was going to be impossible to edge down the slope without losing control so we each went down, engines off but in 1st gear, releasing the clutch when we needed to stop, and aided by someone acting as an additional break by grabbing the back of the bike.  Having made it down to the bridge we conducted one last walking inspection (the first had revealed that almost all of the planks were lose and most were really thin, flexing way too much even under foot!) We each crossed the bridge with one person walking a couple of metres in front testing and then pointing to different boards to indicate the very precise route required and which boards to not even touch. Although it was only five metres it was still a pretty hairy crossing, and it was worse watching the others doing it when you could clearly see each plank lift as one wheel touched it creating a space just big enough for the other wheel to drop through if you were off course by just a centimetre or two. Having all made it (Em: er, James is being generous here – he did my bike for me!), we powered up the steep bank on the other side and waved goodbye to the 50 or so villagers who had gathered at a safe distance on the far bank to watch what these strange farang were doing.

Within a kilometre we arrived at yet another bridge but this time, although it was a proper bridge, sadly it still under construction. The labourers working on the foundations watched us with interest as once again we got off the bikes and laid our jackets and helmets in the shade before walking down the steep sand bank to test the old footbridge which was the only way across (two bits of tree with some bamboo and wicker laid on top). Again the steepness of the approach would require two people for each bike but on the other side, we would be on our own; we had to climb a steep slope in a deep sandy rut, all in a narrow ‘tunnel’ through dense vegetation. It was going to be a case of hitting it with as much speed as you could, and then keeping the power on as much as was possible without flipping the bike safe in the knowledge that if you didn’t make it you’d only fall into the bushes and bank alongside the trench – it was so narrow and the sand so deep that you wouldn’t fall back down. One at a time we attacked it and just made it up by keeping the power on, even when the bike or panniers collided with the banks. At the top we all stopped for another break and sat in the shade, passing around the last few dregs of water (which we were now rationing). The combination of heat, hunger and thirst were really starting to sap our energy. 

Shortly afterwards we arrived in the village of Siempang, the point where we’d be able to cross the river. The river was perhaps three hundred metres wide and thankfully was served by the same system as at 4000 islands i.e. two kayaks lashed together with some boards thrown on top and a small motor stuck on the back. Again, the ‘skipper’, probably quite sensibly, said that he could only manage two bikes at a time so Em and Juan dropped down the steep slope and over the insufficient gang plank and set off while I sat in the sun and waited as the villagers looked on. Ten minutes later the boat was back and I crossed over and rode up the other side to find Juan and Em in the shade at the top playing with a couple of puppies (Em: so cute! The dogs were owned by a woman running a small stall but it only sold sugar cane juice so we thought we’d get some more water at the next village – not far on the map).  I think we all secretly harboured hopes that we’d done the worst of it and that now that we’d crossed such a big river, it would all ease off and our progress would improve; after all, the map indicated maybe three villages along the next 40km section, and given that we were still 80km from Ban Lung we’d have to get a move on just to get there before dusk, right? Oh, how pathetically wrong were we?

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Four Thousand Islands

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

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

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

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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