A Travellerspoint blog

April 2006

Catching up with an assortment of folks

Thailand is often described as the land of 1000 smiles.
Disappointingly, i can offer no notes on that at all, as i haven't seen more than average people smiling or looking even vaguely happy. Perhaps I'm missing it, or perhaps it's a myth, but most people are certainly not smiling, at any hour of day or night. Happily though Thai hospitals do indeed seem to live up to their reputations and I have no hesitation in recommending them.

I might even live long enough to see some of this place.

The bus (which seemingly only runs Westbound, not Eastbound) was fine, and only the last section to Poipet was unpaved meaning that i wasn't whacked around as much as I'd feared. Poipet was again an easy place to cross (i either got lucky or the stories have all been blow out of proportion), and I again pondered the building of hotels and casino's in no-mans land between the frontiers, which obviously makes sense from certain perspectives, but seems to have slight problems from others. I was thoroughly checked over in Bangkok proved i had nothing broken, given some pills for the pain and swelling and on my way again with ease. Cheap, efficient and friendly. Three things i am entirely unused to in the medical service.

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A sign you are unlikely to encounter on TfL's river service in London

I made some attempts to actually be a tourist whilst in Bangkok, and spent time wandering at random, riding up and down the river, visiting the Royal Monastery of the Emerald Buddha and Royal Palace and some of the other sights. If you ignore the traffic, and maybe the 500m2 around Khao San Road i think i could get to like this city despite first impressions. It is hot though, and you need to be showering about every 12minutes or so if you have any intention of trying to stay even vaguely fresh.

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New and Old together by the river, A ubiquitos Wat and peoples homes by the river

But my time in BKK can mostly be taken care of by a series of meetings with people. Timings worked to my favour, and sometimes these things just happen. A bit of good fortune every now and again is certainly no bad thing, and thus it was that in 4 nights, i managed to meet up first with my Aunt, passing back through at the end of her holiday, plus a friend of hers I'd met before and his lovely new wife. Then the following day, i caught up with James (Glorious leader of the intrepid quintet who left Shangers together to climb Huanshan and be attacked by monkeys) who was passing through on his way from India to Tokyo to work for a bit. Things seem to be going well between him and Kyoko, and I can only hope that (and she certainly seems it) Kyoko is significantly less marriage crazed and warped than Kiki was/is.

Update.

I'm being bombarded by emails from both, wanting me to try and sort out their marital problems (he wants a divorce, she - unsurprisingly - doesn't understand what the problem is. The answer, on the off chance - I pray not - that she ever finds this blog is that you conned a random foreigner into marrying you after knowing you for only 2 days, and when he was mullered out of his face).

It was great to see them both again although as it always does when you re-meet people in strange places, it feels a bit surreal. Sadly an attempt to hook up with Rick (from the old Landy days, for those who know about them) the following night failed on logistical terms, but i hope to catch up with him in the next few days. No big deal, as I spent an entertaining evening out with some guys from the hostel instead, more of which to follow. But on the fourth day, came the really odd one. After a small CS meet-up with the excellent Sam and Des, plus visiting Kiriyaki, a trawl around the Weekend market and watching in bemusement as Kiriyaki (who owns a clothing store in Greece and was on her way home from a fashion show in Korea) started running riot in the market, buying more or less anything she could lay her hands on, I headed into town to hook up with Matt Lavender and a group of his friends.

I don't know if you've ever done it before, but it is undoubtedly a very strange and surreal experience to meet somebody you haven't seen in about 16 years. Especially as you were both 12 when you last met.

I'd randomly come across Matt's website (http://www.geocities.com/fourontour/ ) through another school friend a few years ago. With another friend, he successfully went overland from the UK all the way to Australia, something which many try and most fail to achieve (the other two guys of the four had to fly out from SEA to Australia) due to the last leg from Indonesia. They had even done the same Zarubino - Sokcho ferry ride, something rarely attempted by travellers, although obviously at a better time of year... Anyhow, I'd got back in touch, we'd traded a few emails, and as he was now living in Thailand had agreed to meet up when (if?) i ever made it that far.

Amazingly, and against most peoples expectations - especially mine - i actually had.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, conversation was slightly different to our last meet. Whilst i can't remember in the slightest what we talked about last time I'm fairly sure that items such as "fancy another beer?", "look at the knockers on that slapper" and "impressive distance on that Banana" probably weren't amongst them.

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One of Matt's friends was leaving, so a group of them had come up to Bangkok for a going away party. As with the previous nights outing ************** *********** ****** ****************** ******** ********** ************ ************* **************** ********* very messy stuff. ************** *********** ****** ****************** ******** ********** ************ ************* **************** ********* ************** *********** ****** ****************** ******** ********** ************ ************* **************** ********* although it should be noted that ************** *********** ****** ****************** ******** ********** ************ ************* **************** ********* ****** Eeeeek! ************** *********** ****** ****************** ******** ********** ************ ************* **************** *********************** *********** ****** ****************** ******** ********** ************ ************* **************** ********* Surely, that has to hurt. ************** *********** ****** ****************** ******** ********** ************ ************* **************** ********* ************** *********** ****** ****************** ******** ********** ************ ************* **************** ********* ************** *********** ****** ****************** ******** ********** *****It's very impressive what can be achieved with so simple a prop. ************** *********** ****** ****************** ******** ********** ************ ************* **************** ********* ************** *********** ****** ****************** ******** ********** ************ ************* **************** ********* *** ************** *********** ****** ****************** ******** ********** but it didn't really turn out like that. Funnily enough, ************** *********** ****** ****************** ******** ********** ************ ************* **************** ********* ************** *********** ****** ****************** ******** ********** ************ ************* **************** ********* and physiologically I'm fairly sure it's an impossibility ************** *********** ****** ****************** ******** ********** ************ ************* **************** *********************** *********** ****** ****************** ******** ********** ************ ************* **************** ********* ************** *********** ****** ****************** ******** ********** ************ ************* **************** ********* and to top that episode off, Pompey have even pulled off a miraculous come back and are staying up. ************** *********** ****** ****************** ******** ********** ************ ************* **************** ********* ************** *********** ****** ****************** ******** ********** ************ ************* **************** ********* Following on, she ************** *********** ****** ****************** ******** ********** ************ ************* **************** ********* ************** *********** ****** ****************** ******** ********** ************ ************* and from there on in, it was pretty much all downhill ***************************** ********************* ************** *********** ****** ****************** ******** ********** ************ ************* **************** *********************** *********** ****** ****************** ******** ********** ************ ************* **************** ********* Indian TV star who just happened ******** **************** ******************** ****************** *********** ****** ****************** ******** ********** ************ ************* **************** ******************************* Don't ask. *************************** ************************************ ******** ************** *********** ****** ****************** ******** ********** ************ ************* **************** ********* but it must be said that despite all that, and the vast reputation it has, to me (and no, i am in no way an expert) I was disappointed by just how tame and conventional most of the stuff was. Bangkok has a huge reputation, but on current evidence, it no longer really lives up to it.

I ended the night on my now strangely traditional efforts to help somebody. I had met a couple of young Scandinavian girls in Cambodia and agreed we should meet up in Bangkok again if possible. What i wasn't expecting was the 5am hysterical and incoherent phone call. One of the girls, who shall remain nameless, had somehow manged to loose the others after she went outside for a little, coming back to find the bar now shut and no friends. Or bag/money/key etc. After about 30mins of drunken stumbling, she had made it back to the hotel, to be told by the security guard that whilst she had been staying there, did she not remember checking out that morning and moving somewhere else? Now having lost the plot completely and then a shoe to boot (sorry), wandering around hopelessly lost and alone in tears, she had come across a group of drunken lads, who in their efforts to help had seemingly been more friendly than she would have liked.

She had managed to get to a police box, who had laughed at her story and kicked her out into the street. And perhaps unsurprisingly she'd really lost it at that point. 30mins after the phone call, I eventually found her curled up in a corner of a garbage skip on a side street in something of a state. Much coaxing later and we got her out of the skip, calmed a bit, water and food in to her, and with a bit of a plan. Proceeding then to knock on virtually every guest house in a 300metre radius of KSR looking for her new abode, until amazingly running into one of the other girls at about 7.30am, who realising she hadn't returned and had no bag, had set out to find her.

I think she'll be OK, but it will take some time. So much about travelling is great, but there are always things that happen which jolt you back into the sad reality that real life continues, and incidents do occur.

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The horrors of Khao San Road at night

Posted by Gelli 01:04 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Another explosion, and the now inevitable monkey incident

The next morning, I was woken by some cracking, a huge bang and the smell of smoke. After braving opening my eyes to discover that my room fan had blown up (literally - it was in about 10 pieces scattered across the room), it occurred to me that I actually hurt like hell. My lower back which I'd banged in Vang Vieng and had been more or less better was on fire, whilst my neck felt like it had been wrenched in all 6 directions at once, and was not good. My right knee wasn't happy either, and the large pool of dried blood on my sheets was interesting as well, if only because I couldn't for the life of me work out where the heck it had come from. Which was slightly worrying in itself.

Ouch.

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Monks heading to the temple

But who am I to let a little pain get in my way. I have things to see and do, gawd damned it. Despite a chunk of pain, i managed to haul myself enough to spend a day around town. I watched a procession of monks, visited the National Museum (which concentrates mostly on artifacts instead of propaganda and the wars) and Royal Palace/Silver Pagoda (very pretty, if slightly overdone in places)n and retrieving my passport complete with visa. I can say that of all the embassies and consulates that i have ever dealt with in the world - and that's a fair chunk - the Russian consulate in Phnom Penh has been by far the easiest and most friendly, and is highly recommended to anybody. Especially when you compare it to the normal Russian/former soviet embassy experience. It's stunning.

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The Royal Palace (above) and Silver Pagoda, below

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I also got to the Independence monument, cool central market (a great art deco building), and had the now inevitable monkey incident. What is it with Monkeys this year?! Don't they know that it's the year of the dog?? At Wat Phnom, a large Wat on a small hillock in the middle of a large roundabout, fairly large Monkeys were wandering all around and enjoying themselves. A couple of female tourists appeared to stare too intently at one of the larger ones, who freaked and came and tried to grab one of the girls bag and camera. They shrieked, and with one monkey still grabbing on to her back, ran. Towards me. Great. So i ended up with several monkeys headed towards me making lots of noise, and two shrieking girls a couple of metres behind, using me as a partial screen whilst trying to remove the persistent monkey from one girls back. I managed to grab it off and get it away without a bite or scratch (although i yanked my neck in a direction which it REALLY didn't like), although by that point I then had a good couple of dozen advancing towards us. I more or less decided at that point that I had exhausted the possibilities of Wat Phnom and with my neck really hurting, hurriedly left taking the girls with me.

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Central Market

And randomly, and very oddly, the Cambodian queen looks scarily like Queen Elizabeth II. Actually, the first time I saw a photo it was on the Queen's birthday, and my first thought was that they were showing a photo of her in her younger days, before i realised who it actually was.

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Independence Monument

It's a shame that I've had such a short time in Cambodia. From what I've seen, i really like the country. However, I would need at least 3 or 4 weeks to do it even vaguely justice, and have ended up with 1, of which a few days have been written off due to traveling to hand in passports etc, and one which i was in too much pain to take full advantage. Phnom Penh is a cool city, and i think i could happily live there for a while. The mosquitoes around the lake are annoying, but otherwise it's a great little place, and the only city I have so far come across where elephants wander around and up and down roads entirely unattended. A vaguely surreal, but very cool sight.

The food in this country is amazing. I could quite happily live off Khmer food for a while, especially Lok Lak (sliced beef and veggies in an oyster sauce with rice) and Amok (a kind of fish soup). I will seriously miss both, and will have to add them to my list of foods to source at European restaurants. Deep fried tarantula had to be tried, and whilst it's ok (although the juice which oozes out when you bite into it is disconcerting) and I'd eat it again, it won't be the end of the world if I don't. But another random local culinary speciality added to my ever increasing list of strange things that I have eaten.

But sadly, and without further ado, I'm leaving. On a 13hour bus ride (yes, despite the protestations in BKK, i did indeed prove that there are direct BKK - pp buses, and several of them each day) back to Bangkok, with the aim of discovering whether their hospitals are as good as everybody makes them out to be.

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Local transport in Cambodia

Posted by Gelli 23:56 Archived in Cambodia Comments (2)

When hitch hiking goes slightly skewiff...

I don't know why it is, but I never seem to have a working camera when something goes properly wrong. My batteries were dying when coming down the North Korean coast in the typhoon on that 'ferry', so the best parts could not be captured. When I rolled the Landy into a Norwegian field a couple of years back (hi Morten) I had a camera with no film. Today, I had no batteries whatsoever, and no chance to get them because i had left early.

Mistakes like that should never be repeated. My first task now will be to go out and buy a dozen sets of batteries in order to make sure I'm never caught short again. Some things need pictures to be believable and sadly, i have none.

Sometimes, being a little adventurous doesn't pay off quite as planned.

To save myself the 4usd bus fare (and for some variety, having spent most of the last week on buses), i decided to hitch back to PP. There are lots of local transports, and i figured that even if it cost me a couple of dollars and a couple of hours longer, the experience and variety would certainly be worth it. I got a moto to the edge of town, then started walking, awaiting the inevitable pickup or minivan. Barely 5mins later, and a Toyota minivan (of the 8 seat variety) pulls up, and offers to take me all the way for 50cents. Great news. So ignoring the 22 passengers in the van, I climb on to the roof to sit on top of a precariously high pile of assorted luggage (including 3 motorcycles), along with 7 others and off we go.

In many countries, manufacturers seating capacity and number of passengers conveyed are not exactly the same. One of my favourite memories of Morocco was a Mercedes taxi which had 9 of us in the back seat, plus 3 in the passenger seat, and then we watched half amused and half incredulous as a final passenger got in, sitting between the driver and the drivers door. In Cambodia, a simple pick-up can have 5 in the cab, and up to 30 or so standing in the back and sitting on the small roof. And so in something already designed to carry 8 passengers, 30 or so plus all their luggage and a few motorcycles isn't actually much of a big deal. All was great for the first three hours or so. The locals delighted in having the farang - or Gaijin, in Japanese - on the roof, and we laughed happily and traded snacks whilst whistling through the wind. It was at a moment not unlike that that we rounded a corner whilst being overtaken by a bus to discover 3 lanes of traffic (plus a couple of cyclists) heading towards us. My maths has never been that great - to all those who remember my exploits whilst trying to pass (on 9 occasions) 'Mathematical basis of cartography' will know what I mean - but even I can work out that 5.5 into 2 doesn't really go all that well, and that something had to give.

To cut a long story short, together with a car (which was the middle of the three lanes bearing down on us) we drew the fold card. Sitting so high on the roof (i was probably 3.5metres in the air) gave me an excellent view of the impending situation, and after a split second analysis of my options - the passing bus was rejected as it shot past quickly as we slammed the brakes on, and i didn't fancy jumping into the truck heading the opposite direction - did the obvious. More or less in tandem with two of the other roof passengers, I jumped off the side of van, aiming just to get as much distance between me and the inevitable collision and praying like hell that I would miss the tree (i grazed it) and that the ground would be soft enough (i got covered in cow sh1t) not to break too many bones.

I'm not entirely sure what happened in the next few seconds, as things were happening extremely quickly in all directions and I possibly blacked out for a second or two. However i do remember there was a couple of huge crunching and banging noises, rolling over to look up and seeing a huge cow standing over me looking down curiously, seeing a bus disappear at speed towards PP and a lorry and minivan towards SR. A cyclist had stopped by the roadside and was looking bemused, and a couple of motos and some locals were fast approaching excitedly. The car was on it's side down in a ditch on the other side of the road having embedded in a tree, whilst the van that I had been on, was perched at an unlikely angle of about 70degrees against another tree, having shed it's load completely and careered down a metre high embankment and through a small pond. One of my fellow roof passengers was hanging in the tree, a couple were on the floor (one spread eagled under a large suitcase, looking like something out of a Wile-e-kyote cartoon), the rest nowhere to be seen.

I pondered my situation a little. I could see that the car passengers were being helped out and seemed to be mostly OK. So after managing to scare the cow away enough that i could move, and investigating my body (I still have the requisite number of limbs in approximately the correct number of pieces, although much of me hurts like heck) I forced my way up, wiped some of the sh1t off me and staggered over to the van.

What happened next was utterly astonishing.

Completely on queue and in perfect unison, bodies appeared out of the windows on the left hand side of the van and with a couple of locals arriving perfectly to push, the sudden shift of weight righted the van. 10 seconds later, the engine started and the driver drove up to the road. Everybody got out, looking a bit dazed, and shook themselves off. A little blood, a little crying. Nothing more. The van had been so packed that there was no room for people inside to actually fall around, and as it hadn't toppled completely (although how it didn't topple falling down the embankment, i have no idea), there were no serious injuries. Luggage was recollected from it's scattered place over the field. The boot was bent back in to place. The guy dropped out of the tree. Those missing from the roof magically appeared off the grass, and although we all had a few bruises, all were mostly fine if shaken. The motorcycles (one now utterly fecked), bags and crates were hauled back up and reattached to the roof, everybody re-boarded. With nothing more to do, and no camera to use, I got back on to the roof.

Thus barely 5minutes after we had all nearly died a messy death, to the cheers of locals and some utterly, utterly bemused cows wondering what all the fuss was about, leaving a wrecked car on its side in a ditch, we were barreling back down the road towards PP. Albeit in a somewhat bashed up van (the right hand side of the van was, shall we say, not in pristine condition anymore...) and with more black smoke bellowing out than is possibly healthy. We even caught and passed the offending bus to a chorus of waves and beeping.

Excepting a small crash where we knocked over a (riderless) moped, we reached Phnom Penh without incident.

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A minibus similar to the one I had to jump from, if not quite as full as my one, in the streets of Phnom Penh

Posted by Gelli 07:30 Archived in Cambodia Comments (1)

Angkor

And by that I mean the whole thing, not just Angkor Wat.

Wow!

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Nuff said.

Posted by Gelli 07:21 Archived in Cambodia Comments (2)

From Murray Head to Kim Wilde

It's possessed. It really and truly is. For those who have an unhealthy knowledge of my trip (i.e. you are stalking me) or a freakishly good memory may remember that when we climbed Huanshan, my MP3 player decided that it had a sense of humour, and showered me with strangely apt songs the entire way up. Now i think there is more to it. A four hour trek up to the Thai border during which we were all constantly being drenched with water thrown at the side of our open sided Sawgny (fl1ppin New Year. It doesn't mix well with Camera's and MP3 players...) followed by another surprisingly simple border crossing brought us to Thailand. The country in SEA that I have always been least interested in, but logistically I had to visit anyway, so will give it a bit of time. On the bus headed inland to make a connection to Bangkok, I put on my MP3 player, hit random play all, and then from a potential selection of over 8000 songs was treated first song to a nice rendition of the Murry Head classic. I laughed so hard I almost fell out of the back of the Sawgny.

The Night train from Udon Ratchatani was standing room only, so we ended up getting a bus. The 8hour journey took 13, and we were on what can best be described as a wannabe 70's party bus. A psychedelic paint job which even South American revolutionary (and recent Swedish convert) Markey would have been proud of, including go faster stripes, fins on the exhaust, huge numbers of speakers, disco lighting (including a glitter ball on the ceiling) and a back seat of a velvet horseshoe shaped couch were all new to me on a respectable public bus. And as the doors don't physically close, in the back you spend the night hoping not to fall the wrong way when asleep, or you will end up bouncing off tarmac at high speed...

Great.

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A much newer and significantly less pyschadelic bus that the one we were on, but you get the idea...

Whilst the journey itself was fine (sitting on the steps at 5am with your legs dangling over the road whilst watching the fields shoot by is strangely liberating), arrival in Bangkok was cunningly delayed so that it coincided with morning rush hour, and then we ended up being dropped on a slip road miles from anywhere useful. Yay. But managed to get some taxi's and head over to the infamous Khao San Road. It wasn't my idea. In fact, i had specifically wanted to avoid it. But the 3 returnees all swore it was the best and easiest place to stay and with no better idea and in urgent need of a shit and a shower, went along with it. It was a case of find somewhere which had space, which we all managed (in different guesthouses, naturally), and after taking care of business, went to have a look at the Khao San Road.

It's ghastly.

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I hate the Street, but admittedlky I did quite like this sign near to the Northern end of KSR

For all it's reputation, it is a surprisingly small and insignificant road, but even at about 7am, the number of white people around was scary, and not a single local who wasn't working was to be seen. Any number of people seemed to still be drinking from the night before, whilst of new arrivals and departees, all with huge overladen bags and looking bleary eyed, wandered randomly. And one of the biggest street cleaners I've ever seen (that would have been fun to have for New Year water fights. Possibly only a proper water cannon - guessing the King had that - could have beaten it) was jet spraying piles of vomit off the road.

Welcome to Bangkok.

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Wat Arun in Bangkok

The reason that Thailand had never really appealed to me was that it struck me that it would be chocka full of mostly young (18/19) drunk, stupid and obnoxious British kids. Currently, travelling and gap year is the 'in' thing. Everybody travels. What they really mean is they go to Thailand for a month, then Australia for a year and then go home. And with that, they know everything and have travelled. Whilst I have no problem whatsoever with people doing such trips, I just don't want to be near them the whole time. After all, if i want to see lots of young drunk Brits, I'll just go to Sydney.

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Chris enjoying a well needed Chang beer in Bangkok...

Sadly, Khao San Road at least confirmed a chunk of my fears. I'm not writing Thailand off by any means, but I was happy to leave KSR as soon as possible. Which as it turned out, meant the following day. I spent a day mostly doing chores and sorting stuff out, during which time I happened to browse the Russian embassy of Cambodia page, and discovered something I had previously forgotten. It's only open 3 days a week. In mornings only. Russian bureaucracy means that you need an invitation to get a visa, and your invitation specifies the embassy/consulate where you will apply. I had long heard that the Russian embassy in Cambodia is one of the easiest in the world to deal with, so whilst in China had sorted my invitation and put down PP. So i couldn't say sod it and just use Bangkok. Erin meanwhile had to get her Indian visa, and as there is allegedly no Indian representation in Cambodia, she had to do that in BKK. The bureaucracy of diplomacy and visa's is a constant source of amusement and delight for me, just because it's always so unpredictable.

A check of buses at agencies on KSR told me that (although i don't believe it and intend to prove that it's rubbish when in Cambodia) there are actually no direct BKK - Phnom Penh buses. I would have to go to Siem Reap, spend a night and go from there. And in order to be certain to get to the embassy that week, I had to leave the following morning. I went to a dozen travel agents, was quoted between 270 and 900 baht for a ticket, took the 270 one and left the following morning, with vague plans to hook up with Erin again in Siem Reap with all visas in place. The same bus contained people with tickets from several different places and who had paid (in one case) up to 1100 baht (!). All bought from KSR agents. That's over 4 times what I paid, and is very scary.

Yes, you can buy your Cambodian visa at the border. However, if you are on a bus, this will be handled for you by an agent at the cafe where you stop for lunch before crossing the border. And you will pay heftily for the privilege. Oddly enough, despite all the rumours of bribes and payments needed at the border, it was an easy crossing, although I had to do my normal 'walk quickly and pretend you know where you are going' trick to lead everybody to the border after we were unceremoniously dumped in car park and told vaguely to go "that way"...

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A warning sign on the Thai side of the Thai - Cambodian border at Poipet, and the crossing itself

Three buses later, and we were in a packed minibus leaving Poi Pet heading towards Siem Reap along one of the most fun roads in Cambodia. Allegedly, they will make it a real road in the next year or so, but that would be impressive going. It's not all that bad providing you accept that you will be bounced around like buggery, and that it will take a good 6hours+ or so to go about 130km. I have had many many worse journeys in my time, but that doesn't make the constant bone jarring any better. Plus the slow speed made us perfect targets for still enthusiastic crowds of New Year celebrating kids and their water. And then a lightning storm added to the excitement.

I don't even need to tell you what my MP3 player came up with after only 3 attempts, do i?

Rolled into Siem Reap around 9pm, taken straight to the obligatory Guest House of bus company in middle of nowhere, and despite the previous protestations from the entire bus that we would mutiny if not taken to the town centre (and even though half already had reservations for places), in the end despite everything, only myself and an English girl Sharon - the only other solo traveller on the bus - actually said f*ck it and escaped. Gullible fools.

And despite it being after 10pm, we even managed to find a room in a great place in the centre - the Dead Fish. It's hard to describe, except maybe as laid back, semi labyrinthal, has rooms which from the outside like like a temporary film set, and which includes a large crocodile pit in the restaurant. I admit that I've never stayed (or eaten) in a place with a crocodile pit full of respectably sized - up to maybe 1.7m long - crocs before, and the fact that their pit was unprotected on one side with only a small picket fence on the other, and less than half a metre deep (i thought crocs could climb, at least a bit...) gave the place an interesting twist. You have to wonder how many drunk people have fallen in by accident.

I spent 6 hours on the bus the following day, greeted on arrival in PP with a mad scramble of maybe 80 deranged tuk-tuk and moto riders and Guest house reps all baying for blood, or at the very least, the business of the 8 white people on board. The were so crazed that as we sat there, the bus was being rocked back and fore a la scenes you see in riots, whilst people were climbing over the bus and literally trying to smash windows to get to them. It's actually quite funny (especially watching those to whom this is a new experience), and you always at least feel welcomed! I somehow escaped with both my bag and my life, but it was a damned close run thing. And I seemed to end up in the frying pan anyway, spending the evening and night being utterly ravaged by evil mozzies. Despite that, i met some cool people, and my first quick look at Phnom Penh was definitely promising. I look forward to returning. But before that, it was a morning trip to the embassy (later than planned due to the 5 moto riders who all got lost and dropped me in increasingly unlikely and unhelpful places), to hand over my passport and stuff. And then another 6hour bus ride back to Siem Reap where a smaller and slightly less frenzied moto crowd awaited, although the drop in scale was compensated for by the fact that I was (along with a very scared looking English girl) one of only two tourists on board for them to attack.

Yes, i have just travelled North from Don Det, via a third country, Siem Reap and Phonm Penh, 4 days of solid travel and a detour of several thousand km, just to get to Siem Reap. And yes, it is barely 300km from my start point, but by now you must be used to my barely logical movements. But at least I'm finally in Siem Reap.

Tomorrow, i visit Angkor.

Posted by Gelli 00:18 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

How to get wet for a week solid

I have always found it fascinating to see the make up of fellow travellers in different countries I go to, and how they travel. In Japan for example, I essentially came across no foreign travellers at all outside of Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima, and most of them were older (late 20's - early 30's and alone). In China, there was a large proportion of younger single travellers; In Vietnam, everybody was more or less a couple (or at the very least, a M-F combo), mostly younger than me and including a huge number of Scandinavians. Lao on the other hand seems to consist of a more mixed bunch of ages, and be mainly single travellers or same sex duo's. I have no idea why the make up of these people interests me, and I accept it's of no interest to you or relevance to this entry.

Surely by now, you expect this.

Vientiane, the Lao capital is a cool little place. With barely 5.5million in the country (at a wild guess), it comes in at a nice manageable 500,000 or so (ditto on the guess front). It feels not unlike smaller French university cities in a way, and has a mixture of SE Asian and French colonial bits to it that just seem to work. I like it.

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One of it's most redeeming features, and a huge novelty to anywhere I have been in recent months is that it has no high rise buildings./ There are no glass scrapers, and whilst concrete does make an appearance, there are no buildings higher than 6stories in the entire city. Giving it a lovely low rise spread and smaller feel. There is of course, one exception, and to steal a phrase from our Charlie about "Monstrous Carbuncle", the new hotel complex down by the riverfront is both hideous and sadly in all probability, a sign of things to come. This concrete calamity can be seen in all it's glory from the top of the Arc du Triomph. A former French colonial capital with an Arc du Triomph? Surely not... Interestingly, this Arc was only completed 15years ago or so, and is built entirely out of concrete which the Americans donated to build a new runway. You've got to love it.

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The Arc du Triomph in Vientiane

With New Year fast approaching, we only spent 2 days in Vientiane. Actually it's Wen-chen, approximately, but because it was transliterated into French (colonials) and not English, and French not having a "W" sound, means it just confuses us idiot Anglophones. After discovering that visa's - Russian and Indian, respectively - in a hurry would not be possible due to the upcoming New Year (and, which we had completely forgotten about not being in Christian countries, Easter), we spent the time being touristy and running around like headless chickens. Took in the Cultural Centre and free photo exhibition, the Ho Phra Keo Museum, a fairly small collection but housed in one of the most amazing buildings I've come across for a while. Where the heck are your stalking Architects (hi guys. Hope your having fun back home...) when you need them??? The building contained any style you could possibly name, plus many you couldn't, and a mixture of concrete, several types of stone, some with carvings and some without, brick, granite, wood (several types and styles) slate and thatch. Wow.

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Took in the Sisaket Museum, not so much a museum as the oldest temple (Wat) in the city containing huge numbers of Buddhist statues and with a definite "used" feel to it, the morning market, a long winded and unintentional wander through the backstreets in searing temperatures (although i probably shouldn't admit it professionally, i love getting lost in strange cities and just wandering), the aforementioned Arc du Triomph (both day and night). Spent a few hours in the great - and surprisingly level headed and relatively unbiased - National Museum, and an afternoon out in Buddha Park. It's a large park by the river, and was originally intended to just contain one large stone lying (as in down, not un-true) Buddha. But they had so many donations from people (who all had their own agendas and wanted specific things) that it turned out to be contain well over 100 Buddhist - and Hindu - statues. The Big Buddha is big. The ball of Hell was interesting (although we didn't discover what it was until after we had emerged again), and the Park fascinating to wander around. I struggled to shake off a really strange local kid who seemed both drunk and high (probably wasn't either), was loud, spoke little English except 2 or 3 strange sentences, and seemed content to follow me around trying to scare me whilst putting his hands up my backside, whilst Erin lucked out and was accosted by a local trainee Monk who gave her a full tour and explained what they all meant.

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Views of the Buddha Park, plus me by the Big Buddha, the first statue to have been built

And after first getting a lift to the station in a Tuk Tuk with a trio of girls (English, Scottish and Northern Irish, and no this isn't a a joke), we headed south on the overnight bus. On some of the best and smoothest roads seen in Lao, but best described as a show case for really bad loud karaoke music videos, taking 3 hours longer than expected and including both a puncture and running out of fuel (timed to utter perfection to roll into a petrol station). Then squeezed onto a large sawgny bus for a 3hour trek south. Stunningly, we even made it, although not actually to where we were intending to go. Oh well. Don Det was to follow a day later in any case, so no big deal. We got a boat to the Island, lucked out getting a bungalow with veranda and hammocks for a dollar each at what we later discovered was the place with the best view (to watch the sun go down) and the best food on the island.

And then vegetated for 4 days.

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Tuk Tuk station in Pakse, Erin on the boat across to Don Det, and the sunset on our first night on the island

Don Det is one of about 4000 islands in the Mekong which straddle the Lao - Cambodian border. It is home to rare freshwater Dolphins (sadly we didn't see them), and a place to just be for a while. Whilst not quite the tropical paradise experience with the traditional single palm tree and wooden hut which I'd kind of been looking for (and which Mue Ni had also been a contender for), it was more than enough to keep me happy for a bit. We went on a day trip to a neighbouring Island, which was spent doing not much except drinking, BBQ'ing and being terrorised by Squeeky. Oh, and watching the first snake of any size (a metre or so long) that I've ever seen in the wild slither right across the centre of our little camp whilst the locals stayed as far away as possible.

The day beforehand when we had booked, Squeeky (the pet monkey of two motley English guys who ran a bar on the island and were organising the tour) had decided that Erin wasn't allowed to get her water bottle back and instead deserved a small bite. Squeeky has issues with females, it transpires. Being male and being able to tell M and F apart, he seems to always look down on females and try and assert his dominance. On the island he decided to step things up a level. A promising start collapsed around lunch time, after he'd had a bottle of fanta and thus had his sugar intake. He decided first to steal some food, then climb a tree and shake it angrily, sending large swarms of red ants down on us and the food - nasty buggers they were too - and then urinate from the tree all over a poor unsuspecting couple. He then disappeared a while, and came back mostly friendly. Over Erin's back. And after a little bit of being nice, he went for a bottle of beer, decided that someone was in his way, bit Erin again, then headed across the mat onto the Canadian girl next to me. Lets a just say that she wasn't happy, so i tried to pull him off and also got a bite for my troubles. Somehow, we managed to scare him away from the corner (where most of the females were), but it didn't necessarily help as he just ran to the opposite corner and decided to take a nice chunk out of the back of Chris, a big English guy. Great. Martin, the owner, is by this point so stoned and sozzled (he looks close to complete liver failure anyway) that he can't do much, so the rest of the afternoon is spent trying to keep the monkey away from anybody, especially two poor young local kids who were both petrified of him. And Squeeky sure as hell knew this. And he then escaped and terrorised a village when we stopped at another island to thank the monks for letting us use their island. WooHoo!

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the infamous squeeky

Yay. Lets add a monkey to my list of things that have bitten me on this trip, which so far includes a dog, red ants, two children, several million mosquitoes, a cat and assorted other insects. Next up, my death defying tiger attack.

The rest of the time was uneventful. The island was laid back, and even the locals took things easy instead of going for their traditional New Years chaos. New Year's day I spent on a hired bike, cycling over to the adjoining Ban Khone Island, lazing by the Mekong waterfalls, doing a couple of laps to stretch my legs, talking to some locals who took me out in their boat to fish (local net fishing is hard, but great fun), being conned into playing volleyball with them (not my best sport) and watching a group of old people doing karaoke dancing...

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A school on Don Det

I fell out of a hammock (one end became unattached, and gravity did the rest). I randomly bumped into a couple of girls from HCMC, plus the non joke trio from the Vientiane tuk-tuk. With a trio of young English folks and 2 Norwegian girls, we played allot of cards, including one by torch light after the power failed and one of the most convoluted games of Shithead ever concocted, which had me at various points standing on one leg, holding one ear, moving cards only with my forehead, with my nose (and then elbows as well) on the table - try playing cards with both elbows and your nose on the table. You can't see whats just been played or your cards - speaking only in multiples of 5 words, saying only yes and no, and only being able to use swear words amongst others. It took 3hours to play one game.

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At the conclusion of the game... When we started it was August 2003, or therabouts...

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[Another sunset from Don Det, and the islands main road[/i]

And with that, the New Year was in. With things now likely to be operational again, and us nicely rested up - if loathe to leave - we headed out. Back up to Pakse where we had got off the night bus. Whilst New Year is actually only 3 days long, the locals celebrate for longer on either side. Even since we left Luang Prabang, we have been treated to periodic water attacks. This is a long custom in Lao, Cambodia and Thailand around New Year, and traces it's roots to a Buddhist tale, which basically involves the 3 day cleaning of a decapitated head to clean it of crap (in the literal sense). As most of our attacks have been against buses, this has been of no great inconvenience. You can see in advance what will happen, windows are shut, and buckets/pistols etc full of water splash harmlessly against the side of the bus. On the day after New Year, and riding in a sawgny for 3 hours however, it is a different mater. The most obvious issue here is that a sawgny is an entirely open sided vehicle. Which means that if water is thrown, you get wet. Assuming their aim is good. By now, these kids have had 5+ days of practice, it's in the semi official soaking season, and the driver deliberately slows down as we approach each wet point to allow the kids more time. So yes, their aim is generally good. Basically, you get soaked through more or less the entire time. It doesn't matter if you are male or female, foreign or local, reading a book or listening to music on an electronic machine or just trying to hide. And with your bags in the open in the truck or not.
You just get wet.

Constantly.

And in Pakse for good measure, some kids had gotten hold of a hose pipe to help their cause. And knew where the Tuk-tuks drop off passengers near the market.

So it was that 5 drowned white rats stood in Pakse, mostly happy if slightly bemused and trying to dry off, trying to work out where the heck the border was, and praying like hell that it would actually be open.

Welcome to 2549.

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Guest house sign and an advertsiment over the road (no, I don't understand it either), both in Vientiane.

Posted by Gelli 00:08 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Tight bus security and the return of the drunken urinator...

Down the Mekong, around the Plain of Jars and wanderings in Central Lao.

In Nong Khiaw - a stunning village, if small, on the only bridge across the river in hundreds of kilometres - we finally made the acquaintance of two English guys. We had come across Ben and Mike briefly in Kunming, and they had also been in Luang Namtha, and travelled down the same day, albeit by a slightly different set of buses. Our plan was to take a boat down the Nam Ou the following day to Luang Prabang, and we had heard that they were planning on doing the same. And as the boat was allegedly going to cost the same regardless of number of passengers, the more the merrier. They turned out to be two top blokes, and it wasn't even long before one of the inevitable coincidences/mutual acquaintence stories came up. It turns out that they had first heard of me in Shanghai after talking to Jimmy (he of the fireworks and monkey mountain climbing extravaganza), who had mentioned that three of his friends, including the guy he had come to China with and a Welsh cartographer, were currently travelling in Vietnam. The world is amazingly small.

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Really not the greatest of pictures, but Nong Khiaw

In the end, the boat had it's full complement. The tiny chairs weren't great, but we spent about 6hours happily wandering down stream, through gorges, past mountains and fields, and steady stream of locals and fisher people, just enjoying the wonderful scenery. Luckily we were at the back, so managed to avoid the majority of the increasingly inane ramblings from one of the most stereotypical, stupid and inane Americans it's been my misfortune to come across. This being April, it is right at the end of the dry season, and the water levels are at their lowest, so at one point we had to disembark and walk about a kilometre down stream to rejoin the boat (not enough water depth for our weight as well), during which us 10 foreigners had no idea what was going on - we had guessed we had to walk downstream, that was all - almost relieved the planet of one American, and pondered the possible presence of snakes, alligators and large amounts of unexploded ordnance and bombs, mostly for the purpose of scaring said American even more.

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Views from the boat heading down the Nam Ou towards the Mekong, and Luang Prabang

And in an interesting twist, and something i've never had to do before on a boat - especially one i was a paying passenger on - at one point nearing the point where we joined the Mekong, we all had to get out and push for a while, whilst trying to avoid submerged rocks in the low water. Actually, we didn't have to get out to push, but as both crew did, and then a score of little local kids joined us, I felt a tad sheepish just sitting there being lazy so got out anyway to join the push, quickly followed by Erin and the guys and then all other passenger save our 'friend' and his accomplice.

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Luang Prabang, former Imperial capital and UNESCO registered city, has a reputation as one of South East Asia's most stunning destinations. Architecturally, it is not at all unlike Hoi An in Vietnam, with a large amount of classic French colonial architecture, with the Mekong taking the place of the Ocean. Similarly, it is perhaps over touristy, especially in the central areas, but very pleasant to walk around all the same.

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Foreigners aren't allowed to rent motorcycles in Luang Prabang, which put paid to some of our ideas and plans to explore the surrounding areas. We did manage to spend an afternoon out a lovely - if hugely touristy - waterfall in the forest and did some walking/climbing etc around, plus looked at the bears. The rest of the time was spent in the town, wandering randomly around and generally taking it easy. We did some chores, had the police called on us, utterly frustrated the guys by setting them random football trivia to ponder over, and went and hid in a bar so as to be well clear as Erin went on a shopping spree in the night market (oooh look! Multi-coloured fabrics!).

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Spent an afternoon in a "Monk chat", been given a tour of the local Buddhist High school and library, and spending a couple of hours talking to one of the monks. If you are ever in Luang Prabang, I can highly recommend giving up a couple of hours to go to the School and talk to Ven. Khaonoy Thammavong. Fascinating stuff, especially listening to the problems in the current monk hood (very low wages means that few Monks want to return to be teachers, so that in Luang Prabang, there are only currently 3 monks to teach 752 novices) and his plans for the future, especially involving technology. He showed us his cellphone, and talked long about his use of computers, projectors, videos and camcorders etc for use in teaching. I admit I wasn't expecting to find Laotian monks so technologically advanced, and unequivocally in favour of the Internet. We viewed his Stupa, toured the caves, and went to Phat Phu Si, the temple on the top of the hill in the centre of town.

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Luang Prabang - Line of washing at the Buddhist school, selling meat by the road and a throne room in a bar

The guys were on a short time frame and headed straight to Vang Vieng (we think - they were still passed out when we were all supposed to leave), whilst we spent the bulk of another day on a proper local bus to Phonsavan, the largest town on the central plateau and on one of the main routes into Vietnam. Despite never actually being in the war Lao remains the most bombed country of all time, due to Vietnam war. The relevant parties and their backers on both sides made a tactic agreement not to admit that anything was going on there, whilst also recognising it's large strategic value, and as such fighting over it with vigour. The Americans (allegedly) never once entered on foot - their Vietnamese allies did that - instead preferring to bomb the place to smithereens. At 70's prices, they dropped 2MILLION USD WORTH OF BOMBS A DAY on Lao, and to repeat, Lao were not even in the war. Phonsavan had been totally demolished in the war and the area scene of heavy fighting, and even now, much of the area is uncleared of land mines and unexploded ordnance.

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It really isn't anywhere that you want to be wandering off the beaten track. In addition, this is bandit country, and whilst things seem relatively clear now, only a couple of years ago, raids and sudden attacks, plus ambushes (on buses) were by no means uncommon. Whether that had any relevance to the fact that our bus had a civilian dressed guy with a machine gun on it is unknown although a couple of the fellow travellers seemed slightly agitated after he boarded that he put the gun on the seat next to him and promptly fell asleep. Having said that, the same backpackers were even less impressed by another local who boarder half way through - and again fell asleep - when a large machete that was in his rucksack on the luggage rack wriggled it's way out on the bouncy road and fell with a loud clatter into the aisle, barely half a metre from my bare foot. I had been watching it come loose out of curiosity for a good 20mins and saw it fall, so wasn't bothered, but the loud clang scared the living bejesuz out of more or less everybody who had been sat in front of him and never knew what was coming...

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Phonsavan is more or less a nothing town, visited for only one reason, the plain of jars. Hundreds of large stone jars of unknown origin (believed to be 2000+ years old) and of unknown - at present - use (currently believed to be part of some funeral ritual) are scattered across several sites in the nearby countryside. Studies are underway to uncover further sites, and discover the real purpose and history of the jars, and also de-mine and ordnance the land around them. Three sites have currently been cleared enough to allow visitors (with guides), although you are constricted to very narrow areas of definitively cleared ground. Some of the jars are huge (2 metres +), some small, and many have been damaged or were destroyed in the war. Bomb craters are also much in evidence. Whilst you don't necessarily need to visit all 3 sites, it's definitely worth a visit (to site 1), as they are fascinating curiosities to look at, and the surrounding countryside is of the standard stunning Laotian fare. Phonsavan is also one of those places where travellers go for one reason only (ok, I also finally got a haircut, but that wasn't exactly reason #1 for visiting) and then leave, and it means that you get to meet virtually all the other people in town. Which on this occasion including a couple of fascinating people, plus happily Raewin (an older Kiwi lady we had met on our way to - and in - Nong Khiaw), and more randomly, Niall. Who is the Irish guy I met in Seoul who is suspect #1 (and indeed, only suspect) in the case of the b*stard who urinated all over my bag, and also stole one of each of my pairs of socks. I've said it before, and I'll say it again. It's a small world.

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The Main street getting dusty just before a storm hit, and Frickin Mozzies!

Another 6hour + bus journey on a local bus (a half empty old metal bus with no other foreigners, minuscule leg room between the seats and a driver who let his - by the look - 14year old son driver for an hour or so after lunch) took us to Vang Vieng - a kind of a backpacker haunt in the way that Yangshuo is. It's claims include the fact that you can buy "substances" in many forms off the menu's at all restaurants in town (from more subtle things like a 'happy shake' to the less subtle 'joint'), that all the restaurants are full of loungy sofa style places to collapse in (with your happy pizza, if you so desire - we didn't) and that they all show TV or movies at all hours. 2 places were entirely showing friends. One had a large 'no friends' sign outside. One place showed only Simpsons, etc etc. It was very surreal.

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Roadside village from the bus en route to Vang Vieng. Note the black pig roaming free, ubiquitos in all villages across Northern and Central Lao

On a more useful note, Vang Vieng is also home to tubing (everybody raves about floating down the Mekong in a rubber ring in Vang Vieng, despite the fact that it isn't actually the Mekong), kayaking, and numerous caves. We gained a Canadian guy, Josh, hired some mopeds, and using a map of such poor quality that it could only have come from Pindar (that will miss most of you, I know, whilst no offence should be taken by those that do get it) headed out to find some caves.

Despite probably riding some 120km+ over the day, we never did actually find the caves we were looking for.

We did find some others though.

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The end of dry season has it's advantages on occasions, and one cave we headed in well over a kilometre on a dry river bed until we reached an underwater pool and stream, which even after another hour or so of traversing, was still pouring in and with no end in sight. It was a stunning sight (although only when torches were on, of course) and well worth the long trek inside. An amazing array of rocks, stratas, stalagtites, stalagmites, hollow rocks and more. And that was just one of the smaller caves.

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Unfortunately I bailed on the second day there, sadly having to chose to spend a day online and doing some w*rk and assorted chores, leaving Erin to her own devices. And apparently, she found some even better caves.

B*gger.

Oh well. Excepting another run in with Niall, running into a few odd others from earlier in my trip, meeting a fascinating old Luxembourg guy (John, late 60's, travelling for the last 13years. About to head of a see South America for a bit. Meaning 4 years), one of the very few Luxembourgers I've met when travelling, and a stupendous overhead thunderstorm (WooHoo!! loud banging, flashing lights and lots of rain!) the night/morning that we left, there's not much else to say.

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We're on our way to Vientiane (pronounced something like Wang-chen, due to stupid transliterations being of French origin), the Capital of Lao right near the Thai border for a couple of days, and then onwards to celebrate Lao New Year.

It will be my fourth in the last 4 months, and whilst I'm looking forward to it (basically, it's a 3day water fight), i must admit that the novelty is starting to wear off, just a little...

Posted by Gelli 02:05 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Damned, these little Honda's are good fun....

Early days in the green paradise of Lao PDR

Astonishingly, the Chinese proved their benelovent selves yet again. For somebody with my record, I should have run into trouble entering or leaving China at least once, but they've all been perfectly routine to date. The journey down was slightly longer than expected due to a prolonged wait for some road building, a common theme in China, although delays are surprisingly rare. And this being in Yunnan, some of the workers were hard at work as expected so that the road could open again in the shortest possible time....

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In Lao PDR, we suddenly realised that we had to work out a few minor details. Like where the heck were we actually going that day, and the the fr1cking hell would we get there. A bit of a peruse through the book and a game of rock-scissors-paper later, we were heading to Luang Namtha. Or rather, trying to work out how to get there. The Lao side of the border consisted of a small restaurant and a couple of houses, and then the road sweeping off into the distance. No taxi's or Sawgnys (flat bed trucks or pickups with a covered roof and benches down each wall) in sight, and the only bus was going Non stop to Vientienne, which was of no use.

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Erin leaving China at the obelisk in no mans land between the Chinese border at Mohan, and the Lao border at Boten

So we did the obvious thing and tried to hitch. A few rebutals later (normally combined with much laughter at the mere mention of Luang Namtha) and a local guy with a nice Toyota pickup ambled over, and said he would take us for 25000 each. Lovely man. In China just before leaving, i had changed 10usd to kip (the rate is about 10,000 to a dollar, making it easy) and recived a wad about 2inches think of 1000 kip notes. With the biggest note being only 20000 (2usd), we were in the land of monopoly money.

So we hopped in the back of his pickup, surrounded by some shopping and boxes, and headed off. To stop about 1km further on at a road block. The Chinese are building a new road (and a damned good one) between the border and Luang Namtha - and onwards - but which mean't that the road was only open for 2x 3hour spells during the day, plus, cunningly, at night when the border is shut so it is of no use anyway. We killed our 2 hour wait by wandering around the border down, a couple of KM away, and then playing with 2 stupendously cute young Chinese kids who took great joy in the strange white people they could run up and hit/laugh at. Even after the one had urinated on the floor, crawlled through it and still delighted in high fiving us with his soggy hands. You gotta love kids.

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Crazed for food at the road block leaving Boten, killing time by reading in the back of the pick up, or cleaning windows if a lorry driver, and the Chinese kids

And then with the border finally opened, a somewhat rapid, (the roads really are lovely now - perfectly smooth and empty) and windswept roller coaster 75 min ride in the back of a pickup to LN. Although i've been in the back of pickups before, it's mostly been places with poor roads and speeds have been slow. There is no European equivalent to the standard american TV/film way of riding in the back, so this was my first such journey at speed. By the time we arrived, my hair was wind slicked into such a style that even vidal sassoon would have been able to gel it to such a position. By my god, it was a great journey, and so much fun.

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Yup, you kind of ending looking not entirely like this...

On our first day in Luang Namptha, we did the logical thing, and hired two motobikes. Admittedly you may be able to pick holes in that logic (most people normally can find more holes in my logic than the average piece of Emmental, but in order to understand the logic you need to be attuned to that extremely rare thing of "Rich-type-brain". If you were, you'd know it all makes sense) when you realise that neither of us have ever riden a bike before, and between us have maybe a dozen rides on the back of them in total. But we figured, how hard can it really be?

Yes, i know, i know.

This is the same person who managed to snap a ski into 3 pieces and broke both poles within 100m of his first attempt at CROSS-COUNTRY skiing. With my record, i really should know better than to go tempting fate by getting involved with such things, especially in a land with no such thing as insurance, and no helmets provided.

You can almost tell what came next, can't you....?

Ah b*gger.

In all honesty, it's not really all that hard at all. With the exception of my first 5 seconds or so, which were, erm, perhaps slightly less conrolled and pre-planned than you would hope, and a moment when Erin decided that the mud looked really fascinating but forgot to stop the bike and get off before taking a closer look, it was mostly incident free. And stupendous fun.

And there you all were with your normal - and admittedly generally justified - expectations of disaster and cock ups. HA!

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Paying the local kids to enter Poumpouk Stupa - A Buddist monument to a teacher, rather than anything to do with an alcoholic state - and the Stupa itself

Sure, we were two obvious white folk in a country they had been in less than 24hours, on machinery they had never used before travelling down dirt roads aiming towards we're not entirely sure what, but really, so what?

I could get to love this biking thing!

Before I left on this trip, i'd never been on a motorbike of any description. And now i'm hooked, and will be getting one as soon as I have somewhere to live again next. And after i've liberated my driving licence from the Romanian b*stard who's still holding it to ransom.

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Erin and I with our bikes near Poumpouk Stupa

Personal message to a specific reader (hello, Mrs. King. I hope you are doing well back in Iowa). For the record, i would like to say that admitttedly despite much evidence to the contrary, i am in no way trying to get Erin killed by forcing her to hitchhike, ride in the back of crazed pickups, death buses, dangle out the back of Sawgnys, or to ride motorcyles recklessly around a strange foreign country. I'm not (currently) trying to sell her off or force her into the prostitution racket - although in fairness, I admit that i did offer her hand in marriage to a Chinese bike taxi owner - and i'm not deliberately getting her drunk on a regular basis. How was I supposed to know that her tolerance is significantly lower than it ever was in Korea? We are being entirely responsible and not undertaking anything of even vague danger. Everything to the contrary has been entirely accidental and unplanned (Read: Blame her, not me. And as I won't be in Iowa anytime soon, I don't want you to have all your anger towards my pent up for untold years. It could be very dangerous to your health).

Travel in Lao is slow. The country is mountainous, the roads bendy, and whiulst generally of a surprisingly decent standard, including pockets which are in not particularly great, and involve much slow bumping around. A 40km/h average is very good. And very little departs until it is full anyway, meaning listed departure times don't always stand for a great deal. We spent a day going from Luang Namtha to Nong Khiew, barely 250km away, using an assortment of Buses and then sawgnys (including one so full of people and luggage that we were dangling out the back). The fact that it was April 1st* being of no relevance except to make us briefly wander if the joke was going to be on us the entire day, as there would be no transport. But a day's travel in Lao is of no relevance, because the country is just so damned stunning.

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I had been asked in Kunming which country I thought to be the most beautiful in the world that I had visited, and after much pondering, had plumped for Norway. After less than 3 days in Lao, I was fast changing my mind. It is hilly and mountains, has some great rivers, and everything is green. But not a uniform green. Green in so many shades that it it almost seems multicolour. The local villages, with their wooden construction, buildings on stilts and thatched roofs, lots of wildlife and animals, and as in China and Vietnam, lots of always happy and really cute little kids running around break up the green in just the right places. And as we proved at one of our enforced waits for more passengers between sawgny rides, you never know what you will see next. 4 elephants with riders, ambled down the road. I know it was just an elephant, but even so it was just great so see! I love it here, I really do.

And after Vietnam, that is a huge relief.

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(((Please Note: most of photos in this blog entry are courtesy of Erin (www.erindoeskorea.blogspot.com/ and www.dropshots.com/eeking). Her camera downloads pictures automatically and mine doesn't, so i shamelessly stolen some of her pictures until i can get my own downloaded and onto TP. And by the time I could download mine, i figured there was no point replacing the existing pictures so i left them on and just added a couple. Thanks Erin!)))

  • I know that many of you will be dissapointed, but I decided agaist adding any April fools to the blog. I had a few ideas, but the fact I couldn't publish on the day and was already behind partly put paid to it, whilst the idea was shelved entirely when I realised that I would struggle to actually come up which would be out of place amongst all of the random stuff that has already happened on this trip. Be honest, after my explouts leaving Russia, the Kiki incident and arrests for Licourice and Coffee amongst everythig else, what the heck could I actually make up to be a worthwhile April fool? Ok, ok. Yes, I do own a nice handglider and have held a pilots licence for 10 years. Happy now?

Posted by Gelli 06:47 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

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