21.05.2012 - 21.05.2012
listed under "roughing it"
23.05.2012 - 29.05.2012 33 °C
Having wanted to do a motorbike tour at some point in Asia, the ideal opportunity presented itself when the couple from New Zealand who we had met on Don Det said they were also looking to do one and so the 4 of us left together and headed North on the rather long and rather arduous bus journey up to Tha Kaek.
The 'Tha Kaek loop' is a trip that takes either 3 or 4 days, with its start and end point in Tha Kaek. Cloud tipped mountains provided the backdrop for the majority of the loop and there are as many caves and waterfalls to look at as you can be bothered. During the dry season its quite a popular tourist route with 50 or more people on the loop at any one time, but this wasn't the dry season, and we only saw 2 other 'falang' (a non-derogatory term used by Laotians for foreigners) during the trip. So we were the brave ones, or should that be stupid?
The 'Tha Kaek travelodge' hostel that we had ended up at was the focal point for all things to do with the trip. Lone travellers came here looking for companions to do the trip with, and they had an on-site motorbike rental service. We checked out the motorbikes that they had for hire and they were, for want of a better word, a bit shit. They were semi-automatic and made by a Korean company nobody had ever heard of before, and the tyres had almost no tread on them. We had decided that if push came to shove then we would take one, but we'd first head into town and see if we could hire something a little bigger, or better, or preferably both. Two hours and 5 motorbike hire shops later, and we found nothing bigger than a 125cc and nothing better than a Korean semi-automatic, although rather than the 8 quid a day the hostel wanted we found one for 5 quid. We quizzed the guy who hired us the bikes as to the quality of the road, and whether our tyres that were no bigger than a bicycle tyres would be sufficient and he told us that we would have no problems. We put aside our mutual scepticism and started up the bikes to head back the hostel, but not before being baffled by the gears being the wrong way around (i.e. you gear up to gear down, and visa versa) and trying to set off in fourth gear (which by a quirk of the gearbox you can reach from neutral). Anyway, we returned to the hostel, packed our bags and arranged to meet early the next morning to set off on our road trip.
When we met early the next morning, the New Zealand couple had prepared their bike with a bag carrier constructed with large plastic cartons lashed to the side of it, and a rain filter to keep the bags dry in case it rained. The driver had a gargantuan poncho on and big boots to ride the bike. Lou and I rocked up with a small satchel to share between the two of us that she was going to carry on her back, a non-waterproof jacket and a pair of sandals each. We did have a water-proof cover for the satchel though, so we weren't completely under-prepared.
The first day's ride was on a fairly good standard road that bar a few potholes wouldn't have looked out of place in the developed world, but about 80km in we hit our first snag – we'd ridden 30km past one of the best caves on the whole loop. As we'd set off quite early we weren't in any big rush, so we decided to go back and that was when the heavens opened, and didn't close again for a few hours. There wasn't a dry square centimetre on either of our bodies but thankfully the water-proof cover for the bag kept our one change of clothes and toothbrushes nice and dry. We arrived at the 'Sabidy' hostel in Tha Long just as it stopped raining and got straight to the bar after we had dried, where there were already a table full of Laotians drinking their beer Laos at a pretty steady pace. As you would expect in rural Laos, they spoke no English, but what we lacked in oral communication we made up for on the dance floor as they tried to teach us some typical Laotian dance moves, which for the record involves a lot of swaying. After we'd mastered the dancing, the karaoke begun. After some pretty bad Oasis and Eagles renditions that were mocked by the locals, they had their turn and serenaded us with some of the worst singing I'd ever heard. After some more bad dancing, and quite a lot more beer we hit the sack and left the local to it.
We rose at 9ish the next morning with slightly cloudy heads but nothing a shower and some food wouldn't sort out. As we headed to the restaurant area to meet the New Zealand couple for breakfast we noticed in the corner the same chaps from the night before were sitting in the same area. At first we thought they must have called it a night not long after we had gone to bed and come back for an early breakfast, but on closer inspection it became obvious that they were all sat in the same seats, were wearing the same clothes and hadn't moved since we saw them last. Gambling of some sort was going on and the beer Laos were flying down at an alarmingly quick rate. We said our goodbyes a couple of hours later (at which point they were still drinking) and headed north. We had heard from some other travellers in the hostel in Tha Kaek that the second day's ride was much tougher than the first, but no amount of warnings could have prepared us for the sight of a clay/mud road absolutely saturated in water and covered in puddles. For a good few miles of the stretch we had to ride no quicker than 5mph with our feet on the floor to avoid slipping over, and had to go through several deep puddles with our feet up in the air. We went through one such puddle with no idea of the depth and my heart sank when I heard a loud “clunk” as we hit a rock on the bottom. Thankfully the collision only bent the foot break slightly, and no damage was done to the exhaust, but we were cursing the bloke who rented us the bikes and assured us that city tyres would be fine for the trip. When we finally reached Lak Sao, both the bikes and riders were completely covered in browny red mud and both bikes and drivers had to be hosed down before the hotel would even entertain the idea of letting us stay.
On our penultimate day we had yet more rain that at several points in the day got so heavy we had to stop. The persistent rain led us to the decision not to drive the extra 40km out of our way to see the cave at Konglor. I've since read that its one of the highlights of a trip to Laos – you travel 7km down a river that is completely underground and lit only by the torch that you bring, so it was a bit of a clanger really but we were drowned rates and just wanted to get to Vieng Khan for a beer. After we had driven past the turn off for Konglor the clouds disappeared and we had a lovely evening to ride the remaining 50km or so. After a near emergency situation (we couldn't find anywhere open for a beer), we finally found a woman with a cool-box full of beer Laos. What kind of day would a day in Laos be without ending it with a beer Laos?
The final day of the trip was a pretty boring ride down a highway and back to Tha Kaek. We all agreed that we were happy that we had done it, but wouldn't do it again straight away for all the tea in China. The bikes weren't fit for purpose, it rained for 3 hours a day, every day, and the stretch of road we had to ride through on day 2 was just outrageous. During the dry season it would have been much easier but during the wet season quite frankly you'd have to be mad to attempt it. Especially in sandals.
16.05.2012 - 23.05.2012 32 °C
Located in amongst 'Si Phan Dan' (4 thousand Islands) in the middle of a wide stretch of the Mekong river, Don Det is the Island most of the tourists head to, and with good reason. At around 4km long and 1km wide, its small enough to get around on foot or bicycle, but big enough to cater for both the young and lively party animals and the older and slightly less lively hammock dwellers. The next Island along, Don Khon, is not far behind in popularity but caters almost exclusively for the older crowd.
Accommodation consists almost solely of 'bungalows', which are essentially a wooden hut on stilts. Inside you'll find a bed, a mosquito net and a shower/toilet, and outside 2 hammocks. More than enough to provide a comfortable sleeping environment (well, just about enough), but as soon as you're up that's pretty much the last you'll seem of your room until the night time. There are some variances on quality; some have Western-style toilets, some have glass windows, some even have a door on the bathroom apparently, and therefore variances on price, but if you're comfortable roughing it for a few days then you're only decision is whether to stay close to the bars (which can get busy, but you wouldn't describe them as rowdy) or further away.
The two American girls (one was actually from Kazakhstan) we had met in Stung Treng had been recommended a place to stay that was a bit away from the bars, and so after we got off the boat at the Northern tip of the Island we walked the 2km or so South to 'Mama Leuah's' bungalows. In the end the American girls weren't too taken with the accommodation – they had been travelling for nearly a year and were craving such luxuries as a proper bog, but Lou and I were happy with it and so took our bungalow for “2 or 3 nights”.
After dumping our bags we decided that some food and a beer Laos would be appropriate and so sat down in the adjoining restaurant where we sat with the only other two people who were staying there at the time – a couple from New Zealand, and ate some excellent food. Both the excellent food and the excellent company were to be recurring themes for our stay on the Island. The German proprietor of the restaurant, Lutz, also sat with us while we all had a beer and complained about how tough life was.
The group of Islands is known as '4 thousand Islands' but it may as well be called '4 million insects'. As soon as the sun had set and dusk was upon us so were armies of moths. Unfortunately we had left the bathroom light on before we went out for dinner and so half the moths on the Island set forth for our bungalow. When we returned from dinner and realised, we turned the inside lights off and the outside light on and headed to the restaurant for a game of chess, where the other half of the Island's moths awaited us. It was to be another recurring theme of our stay on Don Det, although apparently they're only there for a short time and would be almost completely gone by the end of May.
Despite its growing popularity with travellers, having only been blessed with electricity sometime in the very recent past (5 or 6 years I think), the Island still retains its authentic feel. During the 10 minute walk from where we stayed to the North of the Island you'll stop several times to see kids playing in the water, kids playing some kind of flip-flop flinging games, elders bringing the shopping home, pigs being fed and all sorts of other activities that define the day of a rural Laotian.
For the whole of the week we ended up staying on Don Det, we hired a bicycle each to get around. It was the best way to get around by day, but by night it was hazardous to say the least. Especially after a few shandies. More than once I nearly ended up in the Mekong and even more times than that Lou missed the same left turning and ended up ploughing into the dense woods. Definitely the best way to get around, but ten times easier with a head torch.
The cafes and bars are a really relaxed way to spend your afternoons and evenings. The bars on the 'sunset' side are a bit more lively than on the 'sunrise' side, but with it being out of season when we were there, everywhere was pretty chilled (although apparently in season bars on both sides can get a bit rowdy). On our third night we went for a beer with the New Zealand couple to see the sunset side and on our way back met a bloke from London who was carrying a pretty large snake on a stick. They had found it while trekking and urged us to come to the Reggae bar later on to taste some, which we did (me and the New Zealand guy, that is, the girls looked pretty appalled at the offer). The easy thing would be to say it tasted like chicken, but that would be doing it a dis-service. The chef had cooked it with lemon grass and garlic and it was really tasty, albeit a bit bony. The same guy that had caught the snake also told us about a restaurant on the far South of the Island 'King Kong' that was run by a scouser and famous for its Sunday roasts. Having only met one other scouser since we left England, and having had no Sunday roasts, we were delighted to realise that the next day was indeed Sunday.
So to 'King Kong' bar we headed, but to work up an appetite we first indulged in some lazy 'tubing' down the river. The essence of tubing is that you are given the inner tube from a tractor tyre, taken 5km upstream, given a couple of beers and all you have to do is sit there and float back from whence you came. Not an activity for the thrill-seekers, but an eminently palatable way to spend a Sunday afternoon while you consider whether you'll have the chicken and stuffing from King Kong, the pork and apple sauce, or a combination of both.
One of the great things about being from Liverpool is that if you meet a fellow scouser somewhere in the world, you almost always get on really well with them and when we met 'Mini' it was like meeting up with a long-lost uncle. Mini had left Liverpool in the 1970's but still retained his accent from that time that you don't hear in the city anymore (think John Lennon circa that period) and we sat for hours talking about the city and Everton. As for the roast – we've had some pretty amazing food while in Asia but that was up there with the most enjoyable meals.
Other than sitting in cafes, lazing in our hammocks reading/dozing or tubing, we didn't do an awful lot. The New Zealand couple had told us when we arrived that Don Det was the kind of place where “hours turn into days and days turn into weeks” and you can see why. The only other activity of note we did was an afternoon boat trip to see the rare and endangered irrawaddy river dolphins, who are nowhere near as playful as their sea dwelling cousins, but are still a fantastic sight from a distance.
The only other notable event to occur was a very close, bordering on dire situation in the toilet department. Lou and I had gone out to use wifi in a bar near to our bungalow one night when I got the '30 second warning' that anybody who has been travelling around Asia will probably recognise. I had managed to get around India for two and a half months with no issues of this nature whatsoever, unlike many other travellers we had met who had been, but now it was my turn. Not immediately able to see the facilities that I was in dire need of, I asked the only other group of people in the bar where the toilet was, “no toilet in this bar” was the answer I was dreading. In a state of panic, I first thought I would be able to cycle back to the bungalow before quickly realising it was too late. I then jumped off the bike and estimated I had 10 seconds to find a suitable place, which at that point had been downgraded from a toilet, to anywhere where people couldn't see me. By a stroke of luck I had jumped off my bike next to a tiny shop that sold toilet roll as one of only about 5 items and so I purchased the roll and was quite relieved that wherever I would finally come to rest, I wouldn't have to use a leaf to wipe my arse. After purchasing my precious toilet roll, I thought I had spotted the shared toilets of a set of bungalows but it was just a shed. My 10 seconds were well and truly up at this point and I was headed for a dark corner near the shed when I noticed a door slightly ajar and peeked in to see a dingy room with no sink, no light, no roof, but magically, majestically, euphorically, it had a drop toilet. The scene must have looked rather ridiculous as I sat there under the stars with only a head-torch (and a few cockroaches) for company but I was in heaven.
14.05.2012 - 15.05.2012 32 °C
Stung Treng wont appear in any travel guides, nor be on many people's travel itineraries, and with good reason. There is absolutely no reason to visit here, or stay here, unless you are deserted by the bus that was supposed to be taking you into Laos that is.
After being picked up 30 minutes late by the minibus without a door mentioned at the end of the previous blog entry, we were dropped off at the bus station and immediately ushered onto a local bus that we assumed was destined for Laos, as stated on the ticket. We were supposed to be on a tourist bus (i.e. a better one) and the bus we had been ushered onto was a local one, however the driver and his assistance nodded in a pretty confident way when we asked if the bus was Laos-bound so we settled down for what was due to be a 9-10 hour journey. Two hours later the drivers assistance used his only two words of English to tell us “change bus”, and when the bus pulled up alongside a tourist-style bus at a road-side cafe we were pretty confident that things were heading in the right direction and we disembarked to collect our bags and join the bus we were supposed to be on. As soon as we got off the local bus, the bus that we thought we were supposed to be getting on promptly departed to reveal a clapped out minibus that the drivers assistant pointed at and used his two words of English again (that he had clearly mastered) “change bus”.
There was a Thai guy sat in front of us on the local bus who was also destined for Laos, but as we pulled away from the road-side cafe he was busy tucking into his noodle soup unaware that he was supposed to have transferred onto our mini-bus. I opened the window next to me, shouted over to him and luckily for him the driver stopped and let him on. The next 6 hours of the journey consisted of driving from small town to small town picking locals up and dropping them off a mile down the road, meaning we were getting nowhere fast. We finally arrived at what we thought was the border crossing at 5:30pm, only to be told (as the driver was driving away) “border closed tonight”.
We had been dropped in a town square that had a couple of hotels surrounding it, so we found a decent-ish one for not very much money at all, dropped our bags off and went for a beer with the Thai guy on the banks of the Mekong. After asking us if we were hungry, which we were, the Thai guy disappeared and turned up a few minutes later with a plate of fish that had been dried and then fried. It was looked and smelt absolutely diabolical, and wouldn't have looked out of place in the cat food isle of the supermarket. Except I very much doubt any self-respecting cat would have gone near it. The Thai guy however, was really enjoying it, and in the spirit of not offending his taste Lou and I tried a little bit each. It tasted even worse than it looked, and so after gently chewing it for a few seconds, and it not breaking down at all, I waited until the Thai guy wasn't looking and deposited it on the floor. He soon offered more but I declared myself completely full up, which looking at my Western frame he must have found pretty hard to believe but there was just no way.
Whilst having our beers it had begun to get dark and we had spotted several rats rummaging in the rubbish nearby, and as we were just finishing our beers one plonked itself onto Lou's foot which brought out a very loud scream from Lou and hysterical laughter from the locals on the next table. “It was like a big furry slipper” Lou said, and so we retired to the safety of our room.
Two girls from America had also missed the border crossing the night before and so the 5 of us headed to the square where we had been abandoned the previous evening and managed to sort our border crossing. Lou and I had originally planned to go up to Pakse and work out our plan from there, but the American girls were headed for 'Si Phan Don' (4 thousand Islands) which we had heard good reviews about and was much closer than Pakse, which didn't sound that great anyway, so we headed with them to Don Det (one of the 4 thousands Islands).
10.05.2012 - 15.05.2012 36 °C
Unlike Saigon, Phnom Penh didn't appeal to either Lou or I as a city that we'd like to spend any more time in than it took to see the main sights, so we booked a bus to leave for Siem Reap. A more typical tour of Cambodia would take in some of the beach towns of the South, but as the weather had been a bit shit recently and our time in South East Asia was limited, we headed straight across to Cambodia's most famous tourist attraction – the temples and ancient ruined cities of Angkor Wat.
Most of the advice regarding the temples and ancient ruins was that you needed at least 2 days to see the main sights, and more if you wanted to visit some of the more minor ones as well. We had found a really good place to stay with A/C, spotlessly clean rooms and free breakfast for 10 dollars – So Chhin hotel, and so decided we would slow down a bit and stay for 5 days. The hotel also offered free bike hire, and although they were a bit clapped out, seeing on the map that it was only 5km to Angkor Wat we decided that we would cycle the first day.
Whilst I was correct that it was just 5km to Angkor Wat, what I didn't realise was the vastness of the place; it was 3-4km between every temple. It was a fantastic way to get around the temples, and I would recommend it to anybody over an organised tour or a private tuk-tuk, but by god it was hard work. We got through six 1.5L bottles of water between us and covered about 35km during the day, taking in some minor temples that were deserted, as well as some of the bigger ones that were more heavily populated with tour groups.
In fact while I'm mentioning them, bloody tour groups should be limited to a maximum of 10 people, and they should be reminded that they are neither the only people trying to look around, nor the most important. Especially Korean tour groups, they seem to knock about in groups of 30-40, are mostly overweight, block every entrance and move about in stampedes. They're not shy in touching the 800+ year old stone carvings and think nothing of leaning on a precariously balanced wall to pose for a photo. Phew, I'm glad I've got that off my chest. BIG TOUR GROUPS ARE SHIT.
Having been out for 8 hours during which we saw 5 smaller temples and 2 of the larger ones, we called it a day. The 'Bayon' structure was both of our favourites; it consisted of 52 imposing Gothic towers, all 4 sides of which had a carving of a face that looked suspiciously like the ruler of the time – Jayavarman VII. Wherever you where in or around the temple, the face of the all-powerful king was looking down at you with a cold smile.
With a pair of sore arses and calves like steel, we got back to the hotel and lay down in the air-conditioned room for a few hours when we got back. Someone had handed us a flyer for an hour massage for 5 dollars the previous night, so when we finally mustered the energy up we headed there for a well deserved hour of massage.
We had mused with the idea of cycling for a second day, but a combination of the fact we could barely walk, and that we wanted to see the famous Angkor Wat sunrise put an end to that idea. The alarm went off at 5am for our early pick up and I thought “this better be good” and also “what if its cloudy?”. Our tuk-tuk driver was a few minutes late but got us to the famous temple in good time for the sunset. I didn't think we would be alone in our idea to see the sunrise, but I wasn't prepared for the sight of 200-300 people all waiting by the lake for the most famous view of the sun rising. Nevertheless, it wasn't cloudy and the sunset was quite the picture.
The grandest in size of all the temples, Angkor Wat seems a bit of a beast from the outside, but as you get closer the devil is in the detail. The carvings that run the entire perimeter of the outside of the temple are a sight to behold – some are many, many metres long and tell stories of serpents, gods and devils all in battle, and that's before you get to the entrances with the intricate carvings running all the way around the frame and finally inside for yet more decorative art. Although doesn't have the subtle beauty of some of the smaller temples, it took us a few hours to get around and you need that time and more to fully appreciate the behemoth structure.
Ta Prohm is, I think, the most aesthetically attractive of the Angkor temples. With century-old trees inter-twining with even older stone temples, it really looks the part. Indeed it was used for the shooting of both 'Tomb Raider' and 'Two Brothers'. Major renovation work is currently under-way, and out of all of the grand temples we saw during our 2 days there, this was the one that looked most dilapidated and in danger of collapse. Some of the structures are supporting huge trees, the roots of which wind down through the walls and into the ground, and you wonder how they have lasted this long at all.
One of the annoying and sad things about visiting a tourist attraction that is so busy is the sheer volume of kids all trying to sell the same rubbish to every tourist. “10 postcards, 1 dollaaaar” in a whiny voice becomes a feature of the day. Some are selling little wooden flutes, and some plastic models of angkor wat, but none of what they have is particularly desirable and nobody sells much. We bought a flute and a fan off one girl for 1 dollar but its more because you feel sorry for the kid than you needing a flute or a fan.
Another annoyance, or amusement, depending on your point of view, were the massive spiders that graced the smaller temples. At least 5-6 inches wide, these things had red and yellow bodies and despite the locals telling us that they weren't poisonous, I wasn't going to get close enough to find out. Just after seeing one such spider we heard a loud crash and all eyes directed to where it came from. A huge snack had fallen out of the tree and on to someone's drink stall, sending the stall-holder running away screaming. After speaking to the locals about the snake, which again they say wasn't poisonous, we saw a frog with a piece of string tied around its waist. After enquiring why they had a frog on a lead, the woman told me it was for frog soup for her families tea that evening. We felt like we were in the jungle book or something.
The afternoon after the second day of temple-seeing we were knackered, and decided to have a couple of cold 'Angkor' beers – just 50 cents draught. The plan was to have a couple before getting our dinner and heading to bed for an early night. After we'd had our couple it started absolutely chucking it down and so we decided to eat in the bar we were in and wait for it to go off. 5 hours later it was still chucking it down and we were stuck in the bar. There are certainly worse places to be stuck than a bar serving 50 cents beer, and after a strong coffee each to try and wake up a bit, we settled down for the evening to watch the last day of the season with a couple from Manchester who were Man City fans which made for a fun evening.
With 6 weeks left until our flight from Bangkok, we were unsure whether to head to Thailand for an extended time or Laos next. We went with Laos and booked our ticket to be picked up at 5am from the hotel the next day. When they picked us up in a minibus without a door, we should have known we were in for a long day.