Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Hello Laos

We had a surprisingly good night's sleep in Stung Treng, with the noise of the wedding being entirely finished by ten thirty. Oli was awake bright and early, super excited to get to Laos. Unfortunately in my sleep I was not cooperating, and slept on for an extra hour and a half. Once I did manage to drag myself out of bed, we headed for a bakery to grab a quick breakfast. Sadly it turned out that everything we bought was unbelievably stale. It is not often Oli and I will declare something inedible, but this was such an occasion. We ate what we could manage, and set off for the border insufficiently full.

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Despite the breakfast fail the day started to improve. We blasted to the border along unexpectedly good roads, reaching it a lot earlier than we had anticipated. A man on a scooter pointed us towards customs as we approached the exit booth, but we shook our heads and just carried on. Seeing as we had the bike in Cambodia on slightly dodgy grounds (the Poi Pet border guards hadn't had a clue as to the official process), we decided customs was best avoided all together. Thankfully the passport guys didn't seem to care, and we were out of Cambodia in a flash.

From here, we found ourselves on what appeared to be the Laos side. We ignored the health check stand, squeezing under the barrier in front of the apathetic guards. A huge, shiny and modern border complex lay ahead, and what appeared to be an old railway carriage was on our right. The latter was boldly labelled 'Visa on Arrival'. It looked less than official, and mindful of the sharks and touts that can sometimes hang around borders, Oli jogged up to the legitimate looking building to double check. Said building was still partially under construction and very much closed, so we sheepishly returned to the booth. Visas were obtained with no trouble and no queue, and we were swiftly waved on our way, being told to stop at customs 2km up the road. In line with the rest of the border experience, the customs official was far from concerned as to what we might be bringing into the country. He stamped the Carnet where Oli pointed, and that was that. Much like Cambodia, there is no official Laos record of us even having the vehicle in the country.

All had gone far too smoothly. The entire process had taken under thirty minutes, which is almost unheard of in our experience so far. We also had successfully made it out of Cambodia despite our customs concerns. Furthermore, it was actually a legal requirement to have a Cambodian driving license to use a vehicle there, so we were pleased to have made it without getting in trouble. To be honest, I would be surprised if most of the road users there had licenses at all. The standard of driving in Cambodia is horrendous, with tragic results. According to the 2010 WHO report, there were 147.1 deaths per 100,000 vehicles. To put this into perspective, the U.K. figure from the same year was 6.5. For us, this was one of the few blots on a beautiful and welcoming country, and we hope that positive change is seen in the near future.

We still couldn't quite believe our good fortune, and quickly found ourselves arriving in Nakasong, a popular crossing spot to Don Det. We had been slightly dreading this part, as it would potentially involve wrestling our heavy pig of a bike onto a wooden vessel of questionable suitability. However, our fears proved unfounded. We were directed down a sandy beach towards a platform strapped to two canoes. Oli rode onto it with surprising ease, and we were on our way. Our boatman looked about twelve years old, but he proved an able operator and we made it to the other side without an unplanned dip in the Mekong. The ride up Don Det beach was made interesting by the presence of deep sand, but a friendly French backpacker was on hand to help. We pushed Oli out between us, whilst the French guy yelled 'Rally Dakar! Rally Dakar!' by way of encouragement.

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We were not actually staying on Don Det, and were instead headed for Don Khone, it's quieter neighbour. These islands form part of a 4000 strong archipelago in the Southern Laos part of the Mekong. Don Det is popular with backpackers and has more of a party feel, whilst Don Khone is considerably quieter. Seeing as 'happy food' (laced with bonus narcotics) is not really our thing, we were pretty pleased with our choice. Don Det is still fairly laid back and by no means a partying hell-hole, but Don Khone is far more our scene.

We hadn't really made any effort to check where our bungalows were, but figured they would not be that hard to find. We rumbled off down the rocky track for a while, before realising we were almost definitely going the wrong way. Oli thought he spotted a handy shortcut on the GPS, so we turned down it optimistically. It turned out to be more of a cycling track, which wouldn't really be a problem were we not so wide and heavy. We came to a bridge which looked fine at first glance. However, the very end of it consisted only of a few weak planks, one of which snapped as we rode over it. Not knowing what lay ahead, we decided to turn around and go back along the main way. Obviously this time we took the precaution of me walking across. That bridge definitely did not need my extra 60kg on the back of the bike!

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Eventually we found our lodgings by trial and error. Whilst there are definitely cheaper options on the island, for around £8 a night at Sunset Paradise we had a spotlessly clean stand alone bungalow, with an en-suite sealed bathroom. It was gloriously quiet, and had a fabulous bar / restaurant overlooking the palm-fringed banks of the Mekong. As if this wasn't brilliant enough, the people running it were truly lovely, friendly and welcoming. We spent the remainder of the afternoon watching the river flow by, and slowly wandering around the immediate area. The sunset that night was spectacular, and we were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves.

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We seem to be saying this an embarrassing amount in this blog, but the next day consisted mainly of relaxing and lazing around. We had a lie in, read our books, caught up with our clothes washing and had a good lunch. It was afternoon by the time we were ready for any substantial activity. The heat of the day dies off considerably after three p.m., so at this time we set off to explore some of the island on foot. It was a pleasant and enjoyable walk, taking us through dry rice paddies, woodland and past small farms. For all that the island has apparently changed in the last few years, it is still largely undeveloped.

Our walk finished up at the remnants of the old French Railway. Keen to exploit the Mekong river as a route to the fabled riches of China, the French originally tried to establish a steamer route. However, the turbulent rapids of Don Khone made this impossible, so the railway was constructed in order to bypass this. After the 1940s it fell into disrepair, and it is thought that the Japanese army made use of it during World War Two. Two rusted locomotive engines were recovered from the jungle in the 1990s, and are now displayed on the island. They are an interesting relic of a relatively recent but very different past. Sightseeing complete for the day, we headed home for dinner and an early night.

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Feeling that a more active day was in order, we headed out on bicycles the next morning. These are available for hire almost everywhere on the island, costing about $1.25 per day. We pedalled aimlessly but happily around small tracks. Keen to see the remainder of the route we had aborted on our first day, we headed in that direction. It turned out that giving up had been a smart decision, as the bridge that had proved our undoing was the best of a bad bunch. Thankfully it was perfectly pleasant and manageable on a bicycle. It had been a long while since we had cycled, and it was a really enjoyable way to get around the island. On a side note, we realised we were most likely very obviously from Manchester. We were the only people locking our bikes up on the entire island.

Starting to feel the first pangs of hunger, we pedalled over the bridge to Don Det. We were in search of a fabled bakery that apparently served incredible pumpkin burgers and chocolate donuts. Sadly our mission was turned out to be fruitless, as a few enquiries confirmed that it was no longer up and running. We ended up heading back to Don Khone for lunch, and I munched down deliciously light spring rolls. Oli went for the noodle soup, which came in a ridiculously large portion. He made an impressive effort, although sadly was defeated by the volume of broth.

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The final stop on our cycling expedition was the Khone falls. It was this very section of impassable rapids that led to the construction of the earlier mentioned railway. The original French mission to find a route up the Mekong set off in 1866, led by Commander Ernest Doudart De Lagrée. They knew about the existence of the falls, but blithely assumed they could easily be negotiated if enough willpower was applied. The second in command, Francis Garnier, believed that a strong steamer vessel should be able to cope with the raging flow. Somewhat unsurprisingly their success in this endeavour was limited.  Even for the most determined individual on earth, it should have been obvious that the falls were a mission ender. They were forced to negotiate this part of the river along the banks, eventually reaching Yunnan in 1867. For all his efforts, De Lagrée died in early 1868 from severe dysentery. Not a particularly successful endeavour by all accounts.

With absolutely no intention of attempting to negotiate the falls, we sat on the cliff and listened to the roar of the water as it crashed along its way. Even in the dry season, the river pours amongst the rocks in a fierce torrent. It was hard to capture the scale of these rapids in a single photograph, but they really do cover a vast area. Looking at them from the safety of the cliff, it was hard to believe that anyone would seriously have thought that they would be possible to navigate.

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Having covered a decent distance for the day, it was time to go home. We relaxed at our bar overlooking the river, and enjoyed much needed refreshment in the form of pineapple shakes. I managed to coax Oli into making the effort to walk back to the bridge for the sunset, which turned out to be a good move. We have seen a plethora of Mekong sunsets at this stage of our travels, but it really is difficult to get tired of them. Every one is different in its own way, but almost always worth seeing. On coming back to our bungalows, we met another English couple (Rob and Beck) who are also travelling around S.E. Asia. We ended up spending the evening chatting and swapping stories until the 11 p.m. curfew. A good night indeed.

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On our final full day in Don Khone, Oli declared we would not be moving from the bar area. We spent some time chatting with Rob, Beck, and a random French / Englishman who worked at the guest house next door. He reminded us slightly of Super Hans, but was a decent guy with plenty of interesting things to say. Eventually, I succeeded in encouraging Oli to head out for an afternoon walk, ignoring his lazy protests. We had a lovely stroll around the island, getting back just before dark. We spent the evening eating and laughing with Rob and Beck. They also taught us a good card game, and we even found ourselves gifted with their spare deck of cards. Even better, Rob is a proud Cornishman, and they are emblazoned with the county flag. We have promised to take good care of them!

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We didn't rush too much this morning, as we did not have too many miles to cover. After the usual slow process of packing the bike and getting ready, we waved goodbye to everyone and were on our way. We arrived at Don Det beach, pleased to find that we did not have to wait too long for some suitable transport. We had a slight panic moment when the boatman insisted and insisted that Oli could not ride the bike up the plank. He could not comprehend that it was actually far easier to ride it, and Oli, the boatman, two fishermen and a helpful Canadian backpacker were required to push it up instead. I had visions of our beloved bike being dropped in the Mekong, but thankfully it was okay.

We had not actually ended up agreeing on a price before leaving, with Oli saying 80,000 kip and the boatman insisting on 100,000. As we had only paid 80,000 to get out, there was no way we were willingly going to be fleeced out of the extra. As we got underway the driver again insisted 100. Oli took 80,000 out of his pocket and said it was all he had, which I thought was a bold strategy considering that the boatman was very aware of it being a sellers market. I was pleasantly surprised however to see that he simply shrugged his shoulders and accepted it with a smile. Cheeky git!

On reaching the shore, Oli didn't wait to be told he couldn't ride the bike off, and just went for it. The easy part complete, it was now time to try and get off the beach. To the right lay the official way, a steep bank of very soft sand. To the left, an even steeper bank (albeit with harder ground), and a very rickety looking wooden bridge. Oli asked me to look at both routes and see which was best, which turned out to be a big mistake. Like a fool, I told him to take the sandy option as I did not think the other would be possible. He stood on the pegs and gunned it up the hill, unfortunately running out of steam with just a couple of feet to go. There was no stopping the bike even with the brakes, and he slid backwards most of the way down before crashing to the side.

This was all witnessed by two large boatloads of backpackers. They all looked slightly shell shocked, but one quickly ran forward and helped us pick up the bike. Accepting that there was no way we were getting up the sand bank of doom, Oli decided to go for the other option. With a considerably large audience, he charged at the slope, making it to the top and over the rattling bridge in one go. This raised an admiring cheer from the backpacker kids, which would have been a lot cooler had they not been present for the first attempt.

The rest of the drive to Pakse was pretty dull in comparison to the morning's excitement. The roads so far in Laos have been surprisingly excellent, and allowed us to cover the 150km in no time at all. Tomorrow we embark on the Bolaven Plateau loop. Oli has been told that there is a home stay / coffee farm on the way, so is already very excited. Much like Cambodia, we are starting to get the feeling that we will be in Laos much longer than originally planned...

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