Cambodia – Laos – Thailand
It’s hard to believe we’ve been on the road a year, for March 17th, St.Patricks day, 2006 was the day
we rode away from home. Where did it go..? Here’s a brief reminder…
Two meters of snow across Germany, an avalanche and a days snowboarding in Slovenia took us to Croatia and the Adriatic coast which we followed through the secret that is Kotor in Montenegro and on down the coast to Albania. Here we enjoyed the hospitality of Fation and his family before Macedonia and Greece led us to Turkey, Istanbul and the Moto GP. Cappadocia remains not only a highlight of Turkey but of the trip as a whole and the hospitality afforded us by Guvenc and Mustapha will stay with us always.
A southerly detour through Syria led to our meeting with Suska, the wonderfully friendly Syrian people and the magnificence that is Krak de Chevallier. Back in Turkey the east and the north were far more picturesque and friendly than the west and south west and even the border town of Dogubayasit, under the shadow of Mt Ararat, proved far more friendly than it first appeared. Iran surprised us by appearing far less religious than Turkey. We were shocked by the total disregard for human life with regard to driving and sickened by the car that drove off the mountainside and landed in the road ahead of us. Muslim hospitality reigned supreme as firstly Reza Moosavi then Mr Houshang and BMW Iran looked after us. The beautiful Mosques of Esfahan gave way to the eastern desert and soon we came to the point of no return.
Entering Pakistan we skirted the Afghan border for 650km through the tribal region of Baluchistan to Quetta. Southern Pakistan finally gave way to the north and with it came the stunning Karakoram and Hindu Kush mountain ranges. We met TNT (Tim ‘n’ Tracey), Ze Germans (Nils and Paul), Vinny and Gill. We camped on Shandur Pass and watched the Polo matches (as seen on Palins’ Himalaya), we broke our bikes on the Babusa Pass, we all got sick, Paul rode his bike off a cliff and we all met up again at Vinny and Gills in Islamabad where we took over there house for two weeks.
After Pakistan, India was like going on holiday. Our first night was spent eating chicken Tikka Masala and drinking draught Kingfisher from frosted glasses in Amritsar. The road from Manali in Himachael Pradesh to Leh in Ladakh and onto Srinigar in Kashmir remains the highlight of the trip. Such was our enjoyment of the north that joined by Tim from TNT, we spent 2.5 months in India and never ventured south of Rishikesh. We met many other wonderful people in India including Anu, who Tim rented his Enfield from, Klaudia, Maarten and Ilse (the Dutch Hippies), Damon, everyone involved with the Raid de Himalaya and many others. It was a magical time.
Nepal continued our love affair with the mountains and we trekked in the Annapurna before finally leaving the subcontinent. Without permission to cross Burma, we air freighted the bikes from Kathmandu to Bangkok.
After a reunion with friends not seen since Pakistan and India we spent Christmas and New Year on Koh Chang before tackling the emotional rollercoaster that is Cambodia and then north into Laos before heading south again to the Thai islands.
Along the way we have encountered many extremes; most of which were provided by Pakistan.
Hottest day: Multan – Peshawar, Pakistan 48 C
Hardest day: Babusa Pass, Pakistan. 13hrs to ride 73km. Many parts broken
Worst day: Sukkur – Multan (Pakistan) Police escort.
Worst food: Pakistan
Most Sick: Pakistan
Most consecutive days ridden: 6 Shiraz (Iran) – Peshawar (Pakistan) 3300km.
Cheapest petrol: Iran 4.8p per litre
Most expensive petrol: Turkey GBP 1.25 per litre
Longest single days ride: 905km Mae Hong Son – Kanchanaburi (Thailand).( NB This record was previously held by Multan – Peshawar (Pakistan) at 830km)
Highest altitude: Khardung La, Ladakh (India) 5350m
Longest continuous rainfall: Shrinigar, Kashmir (India) 72hrs
Longest time without seeing rain: MacLeodganj (India) – Nong Khiaw (Laos) 5months
You’ve heard us mention certain fellow travelers on many occasions. As we go our separate ways for possibly the last time I thought you might like to know who’s doing what:
TNT (Toyota HiLux)- On 21st February, TNT and Koy the dog flew from Bangkok to Kathmandu, picked up the jeep and set off back to England via Pakistan and Iran and henceforth TNT go East became TNT go West.
Ze Germans(Yamaha XT600) – Nils is in Sydney and hates it. He’s had loads of trouble getting his bike out of customs but has found enough work to keep him traveling until the summer. Paul is in Perth and seems to be having a better time of it. Both will head home to Germany this summer.
Vinny and Gill – completed their two years in Islamabad and are currently in the UK undergoing more training before taking up their new post for the British High Commission in Cameroon in May.
Maarten and Ilse (Africa Twin) – We’re all together at the moment and will enter Malaysia together at the end of the month. They will ship B.O.B to Turkey or Greece around June and look for a place to settle down in Europe.
Brian and Fie (BMW R1150 Adventurer) – Will very soon ship to Denmark where they will settle and get married in August.
Billy and Trish (R80GS & 250 Kawasaki) – Will airfreight to Kathmandu anytime now and make their way through India and Pakistan to Mongolia, possibly via Afghanistan. They will eventually make their way to South America where they have previously spent two years touring by motorcycle. Perhaps we’ll catch up with them there.
“…Be careful what you wish for…” were words from my childhood cursing through my mind as I slid along the gravel track on my arse, watching by fully loaded bike flip over in front of me.
During our reunion with TNT et al in Bangkok we had all commented on how the journey had been almost all Urlab and no Abenteur since leaving Pakistan and how we all looked forward to a bit of Abenteur.
Urlab became Abenteur within 36hrs of leaving Siem Reap as we picked up the wrong trail across northern Cambodia. Having visited the Angkorian wonder that is Preah Vihear (a 1000 year old Temple/Place that sits atop an escarpment overlooking Thailand) we headed east across northern Cambodia armed with some basic directions from Andrew in Phnom Pehn.
“…about 25-30km south of Tbaeng Meanchy there’s a (nearly) new forest road that goes through Chhep and joins another good forest road to Thala Bariyat where you catch the boat to Stung Treng. You’ll see some tea houses near the junction so you can ask the way…”
We followed his directions, asked the way and sure enough the road did lead to Chheb, however it wasn’t the road Andrew had told us about.
Once in the jungle asking the way was impracticable. Without perfect pronunciation nobody knew where we were talking about and although our map was written in English and Khmer, the locals could not read. GPS showed us approaching a road that led directly to Chheb and although we had to ride the wrong way to pick it up, it was our best option.
The ‘road’ turned out to be a deep sandy track which is the hardest terrain for us to ride. Momentum is what you need to ride sand but its not always what you want on a 300kg bike. We both toppled over several times as we climbed our steep learning curve. At one point Danny went missing. Returning along the track I found him sitting on the floor next to his bike which was led on its side with one pannier smashed in. It transpires that having gained sufficient momentum to get through a particularly deep section, he’d got into a weave and hit a tree stump with his box, throwing him over the handlebars.
Back on the track we passed through several settlements where the kids would come racing out, waving frantically. In one village the road widened as it passed the school and as usual the kids came running out waving and cheering ‘AAAArrrrrhhhhhh’, waving back I got into a big weave, thanks to the deep sand, and ran off the road, ploughing through the bushes opposite the school. Although I could no longer see the kids I could hear the ‘AAArrrhhhh’ turn into ‘oooooohhhhhh’. I suddenly saw myself through the eyes of a 5 year old kid running out of school watching a ‘spaceman’ crashing through the undergrowth on a motorcycle he obviously had no control over! My laughter did nothing for my bike control and I nearly crashed properly.
The road sported several wooden bridges built over what would prove to be impassable sections during the wet season and we descended many deep sandy riverbanks to cross (nearly) dried up rivers. These remote settlements see very few outsiders, let alone tourists and we returned to being stared at in disbelief.
We eventually rolled into Chheb at 1530. Given the road conditions we had to concede there was no way we would reach the next reasonably sized village that day, let alone our intended destination.
With no accommodation in the village, the local police house arranged for us to stay at the hardware store owners’ house where we had to pump well water and wash in the garden with a bevy of locals looking on . The police house was a regional training centre and one of the lads spoke a little English. Upon learning we hadn’t yet eaten, he set off to find a chicken which he then cooked on the condition we drank locally brewed Palm Wine with him and his mates so he could practice his English – how could we refuse…?
Back on the ‘road’ the following morning, cresting a rise in the track, I spied two rocks in the road ahead. Steering between them I failed to see the sawn off fallen tree protruding from the bushes to my left and hit it with my pannier – hard. I was driving on in third gear at the time so it was my first proper crash of the trip. I expected much more damage than the broken mirror, and (severely) smashed in pannier. I was really lucky.
It was the only spoiler in what was otherwise a great day’s ride through the ‘Cambodian Outback’.
At Thala Bariyat we manhandled the bikes onto a boat and crossed the Mekong to Stung Treng. Here we found a panel beater who done a fantastic job of repairing three panniers for $15.
I thought I was being clever at the border. The immigration official wanted $1 from each of us just to stamp our passports, not a fortune I know but stamping passports is his job and I begrudge bribing people to do their job.
Early in the trip we’d learnt to ask for a receipt whenever we knew a requested payment wasn’t official. This guy had obviously heard that one before and produced a receipt book written in Laoation. For all we knew it may have said “I scammed this pair of muppets for $2”. I produced a $20 bill thinking he wouldn’t have change and we’d get let off – wrong. Out came a fat wad of $1 bills (as paid by every other tourist) and with a wry smile he counted out 19 $1 bills. Immigration 2: Adam 0.
Once again, as in Cambodia, this would prove to be the tip of the iceberg. Passing through villages with no electricity we see people sitting around fires lit in the street to keep warm and watch kids spend their spare time collecting firewood and fetching water from the river. Everyone mucks in to build houses, few are cast concrete with brick infill but the majority are timber. ‘Slash & Burn’ is the farming method of choice and a combination of ash and smoke fill the air as we ride along. Fallen tree trunks lay strewn across vast areas of smoldering hillside, slowly turning to charcoal.
Outside our hotel is parked a Ferrari. This even stands out amongst the new BMW’s, Mercedes and Hummer’s we’ve seen elsewhere in the country. How is this possible in a country so poor? After seeking answers throughout our month there, we finally had it explained two nights before we left.
Lawrence has been traveling through SE Asia for the last 19 years and his jeep was loaded with medicines and warm clothing for the people of the Hill Tribes. He and his Thai wife would distribute their cargo in the surrounding hills and buy locally produced handicrafts which they would take back to France to sell in their seasonal shop. The profit from this, along with donations of clothing and medicines collected in France, would be brought out on their next visit.
He told us to watch out for blue number plates on the new cars; a blue number plate indicated a government officials’ vehicle. Apparently, for NGO’s to operate ‘successfully’ in Laos, they have to ‘smooth the way’. The done thing is to hand out new cars/pick-ups to prevent their moves being blocked. The following day we not only spotted many blue number plates but we could even spot one NGO’s operating area from another. In one region all the brand new pick-ups with blue number plates were white Nissans, in the next region they were beige Toyotas.
We breezed through the south heading for Kong Lor cave. We’d hoped to take in the boat ride from the main road to the cave but discovered the water level too low at this time of year and so rode the 39km dusty track (impassable during the wet season) to Kong Lor village. At 7.5km long and up to 100m wide and 100m tall was nothing short of spectacular. The boat ride through it took an hour.
At the information office we met Billy and Trish, the Aussie couple we’d met near Kanchanaburi back in December. Although we headed our separate ways this wouldn’t be the last time we’d meet.
The country seemed to be going through an uncharacteristic cold spell and we had to put our linings in our jackets for the early morning ride to the capital Vientiane.
We spent our first evening in town having dinner with Billy and Trish and hearing about their two year bike trip through South America and their unusual home in Broome, Western Australia. They will be flying their bikes to Kathmandu and riding through India and Pakistan so we were able to pass on some info.
For anyone who has visited Laos, Vang Vieng means one thing – tubing. A van drops you a few kilometers upriver from town at which point you jump on your truck inner tube and float down the river. Then the unique part appears. The river banks are lined with bars pumping out tunes and inviting you in for a beer. Most hold out a large bamboo pole for you to grab and they drag you in. The best ones however, have the most unbelievable, trapeze style swings with precarious platforms high above the river. Letting go of the swing you plunge into the Mekong from 20ft in the air, climb out, sup your beer and do it again. It took us 6.5 hours to get down the river!
I nearly choked on my beer as I overheard an American lad telling a girl he was trying to impress that he was reluctant to return to Thailand as it was too ‘Touristy’. “Too touristy!” I blurted out; “you’re floating down a river in an inner tube, supping cold beer, surrounded by a hundred others doing likewise, flanked by bars pumping out club music; and Thailand’s TOO TOURISTY!!?? – you’re having a laugh mate.” Needless to say, he wasn’t too impressed with my comment!
As we headed out from Phonesavah to visit the Plain of Jars, we bumped into Billy and Trish. Trish wasn’t feeling too well and was struggling to get her leg over her bike. Little did we know what was to come.
We spent a few days in the far North East around Xam Neua and Vieng Xai, visiting caves where the Pathet Lao holed up during the US bombing during the ‘Secret War’ of the late ‘60’s.
Fact: Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the history of warfare. The US dropped more bombs here than the Allies dropped on Nazi Germany during WWII. An equivalent of 750kgs for every man, woman, and child in the country.
Here, the Limestone landscape resembles landlocked Thai islands. The majority of houses are built on stilts sprouting from the hillside as any land even remotely flat is used as a rice paddy. At the right time of year this would be beautiful.
A long days’ ride West took us through many more isolated villages, the majority of which sport a new school built just outside town. Fantastic, we think, until several days later we realize they are all empty; no matter what time of day we pass by. We are told that the schools were built by the Japanese as part of some sort of deal over ‘Energy’ but the government can’t/won’t pay for teachers or materials.
After chilling out in Nong Khiaw for a few days we rode down to Luang Prabang where I pick up an e-mail from Billy. Trish’s pain had got worse and so they rode to Luang Prabang. At the outskirts of town she was in agony and within 2hrs of arriving she was on the operating table having a Perforated Appendix removed. Luckily for her there was a visiting French Abdominal surgeon in town who oversaw the operation. Seven days later she had the stitches removed, got on her bike and rode out of town! She’s one tough lady is Trish.
We’d all left town on the same day and after a couple of hours riding we came across Billy and Trish taking a break at the roadside. We joined them and soon we were all joined by a group of Chinese tourists, all here for the Chinese New Year holiday. They were fascinated by us and our bikes and suddenly we had become the tourist attraction. Many photos were taken of them with us, trying on our riding gear etc. They found it hysterical when I pointed out that one of their cameras cost more than my bike!
The ride to Phongsali included a 110km dirt road through lush jungle. En-route we overnighted in Boun Tai where we visited the traveling circus that happened to be in town. Consisting mainly of local dancing girls attempting to set a record for the number of costume changes (shame it wasn’t tune changes) the finale was a slapstick routine provided by a group of Europeans. Truly shocking.
Once in town we met the unlikely combination of two Iranian hippies traveling with an Israeli girl. Man those Iranian dudes can grow some hair!
The road from Luang Namtha to the Thai border produced earthworks on a scale neither Danny nor I had ever seen before. Tops of mountains had been sliced off and bulldozed into valleys to build the switch back roads that lead up to the passes. Whole villages had been displaced by this huge scar. Remember all the fuss and protest over Twyford Down nr. Winchester? Now imagine the same thing but 160km long and cut through a jungle.
It was Sunday when we arrived at the border and despite paying a few extra Kip for overtime our Passports and Carnets were processed swiftly. Only afterwards did we learn there was no vehicle ferry on Sundays and so we spent the night at a guesthouse overlooking the ferry ‘terminal’.
THAILAND Part II
They wouldn’t let us in! It turns out that our Laos exit stamps and Thai entry stamps had to have the same date and so, after much arguing, we had to leave our bikes and catch the passenger ferry back across the Mekong to Laos, have our exit stamps changed from yesterday to today and catch the ferry back to Thailand before they would stamp us in!
We spent longer than planned in Chiang Mai. As a year on the road approached so we both had vaccinations that needed renewing and with dental care being such good value we both paid a visit.
We ordered new rear tyres for both bikes and were pleasantly surprised to find Brian and Fie staying in the same guesthouse as Billy and Trish. It was good to catch up with them after last seeing them in Siem Reap.
We rode the Mae Hong Son loop stopping in Pai and Mae Hong Son. Pai was more developed than when I last visited two years ago. It is a chilled out town that reminds me of Leh in Ladakh only this time the Israeli tourists were outnumbered by the English dreadlocked/barefooted wanabee hippies straight out of William Sutcliffe’s ‘Are You Experienced’. Why do these people insist on wearing nothing on their feet? Even the poorest of the poor locals wear something on their feet!
We spent two nights in Mae Hong Son so that we could watch the first round of Moto GP live from Qatar. At night, market vendors would line the road around the floodlit lake in the centre of town, selling all kinds of food, herbs, spices and teas.
An e-mail from Maarten and Ilse said they were heading for the island of Koh Lanta and we decided to join them. From Pai to Mae Sot and on to Tak on the main north /south road the riding was fantastic. Mostly well surfaced, the road twisted its’ way over 1500m passes for 450km making for the most enjoyable riding of the last few months. Unfortunately the views were spoilt by an ever present haze that seemed to be generated by the constant burning of grass and leaves. Even the largest Karsts appeared as vague silhouettes despite their closeness. From here on though, it was just a case of crunching out the miles in order to catch up with ‘the Hippies’.
We rode from Mae Hong Son to Kanchanaburi in a day (905km) and on to Krabie the next (810km) before catching the two ferries to Ko Lanta the following day. Somewhat saddle sore, the beach was a welcoming site and we took no time in plunging in.