Saturday, December 20, 2014

Home again

With a visit to Cambodia foiled, we decided to make the long run home (Phuket Thailand) and leave a visit to Cambodia for another trip, maybe to coincide with a future necessary Visa run. So we first had to retrace our Laos path heading back north, before heading for Chong Mek (about 80 km east of Ubon Ratchathani), the nearest border crossing back into Thailand.

It felt good to be back in Thailand where we find it more comfortable. Thai food is better any maybe even a little cheaper, the people are super friendly (it's known as The Land of 1,000 Smiles), and more English is spoken.

Our route heading south in Thailand had us staying at Chok Chai, passing through Bangkok to cute Hua Hin where we have stayed previously, and at a quiet beach bungalow just past Chompson. The roads had several fully loaded trucks carrying sugar cane.

A lot of sweetness

After 27 days on the road travelling through all parts north in Thailand and the whole length of Laos, we made it back to Chalong Bay of Phuket Island on December 20th where Sea Turtle, our mobile ocean home, welcomed us back on board.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

CAMBODIA?

Today we were really excited about crossing into another country that neither of us had ever been to before: Cambodia. So we were shocked when we were about to exit Laos and a Lao border guard stated that we would not be able to take our motorcycle into Cambodia!

From what we read and heard, we thought he might be mistaken so Jordan decided to walk across the border to talk with the Cambodian Customs to get it from the horse's mouth. We were informed that if we didn't have a pre-approval certificate to allow the vehicle to enter, which was only attainable at the Customs office in the Cambodia capital of Phnom Penh, then we could not enter with the motorcycle.

He said we would have to bus 12 hours to Phnom Penh, go through the process of getting the necessary vehicle entry approval documentation (and he couldn't say how long that would take), and then return with it to then be allowed to enter. That was not an option for us, so searching for a solution or a caveat, Jordan argued that we own the motorcycle and we have all the papers as proof, but that was immaterial. They were all very pleasant about it and matter of fact, but the laws were clear to them.

It was very discouraging to have to turn around (it was a simple U-turn as we had not checked out of Laos) and head back about 150 km to the town of Paksan that we had been at 3 days ago.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Scary ferry

Have you ever taken a mode of transportation that you have been just a little bit leery of? Well, we encountered such a situation in southern Laos when we decided to cross the Mekong River to Khong Island - 1 of 4,000 river islands!

Upon arriving late in the afternoon to a riverside village, we could see the island that we wanted to go to across the waters. There, a man approached quickly and said that he could take us and the motorcycle over to Khong. He directed Jordan to drive the motorcycle to the river's edge and then across a precarious wooden gangplank onto his twin-hulled tiny boat, the condition of which matched the plank!

Would the gangplank and the boat's deck boards hold the weight? The owner exuded great confidence, so as directed, Jordan eased the bike onboard. Once secure, we shoved off for the trip across the mild waters towards the setting sun.

Mekong ferry

On arrival, the fare was paid, then Jordan made his disembarkment across the gangplank, and keeping his revs and momentum up, climbed the short steep path up to the road. Only 3 of the 4,000 islands are permanently inhabited with Khong being the largest at 8 km by 17 km. There was a good variety of suitable guesthouses so we had a quick check-in.

Balcony view of the Mekong

Khong may be the largest of the islands but there is very little to do except chill out. It was a nice break from constant motorcycle riding.

The morning sunrise added a tranquil glow to a serene river setting with the early morning fishermen.

Early morning on the Mekong

After breakfast, we checked out and did a tour around the Island on its rough, narrow roads. Once again, our rear luggage carrier made a getaway, jumping off its rack and crashing to the road. We found a little shop, and after some drilling and extra bolting, had the latch secure.

We discovered there is a new bridge from the south end of the Island back to the mainland of Laos but we were glad that we took the alternate/original way on the scary ferry. It was much more of an adventure than a boring bridge!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

To southern Laos

Leaving Phonsavan (Laos) again on our motorcycle, we backtracked westward before turning south towards Vang Vieng, our day's destination. As we started our descent out of the high mountain area, we passed a group of monolithic mountains that are synonymous with quintessential Asian scenery.

Lofty peaks

We passed a number of other adventure bikers this day, many who rent bikes in the capital and head up through the area.

Eventually we entered a scenic fertile valley nutured by a lazy river and framed by large limestone mountains where we found Vang Vieng. The more active and energetic traveller favours this place for its river kayaking, trekking, and caving activities in the immediate area.

Languorous valley

The following few days in Laos presented us less noteworthy experiences as we continued our southerly travels towards Cambodia.

Our advance and ride into the capital of Laos, Vientiane, was from the north and it was a dirty, dusty approach. The north sector seemed to be more industrial and roadwork and many of the offshoot roads presented bare red dirt surfaces that created a gritty atmosphere. There were a few scenes of culture once in the area, like the riverfront esplanade and the replica of sorts of the Arc de Triomphe of Paris which is called the Patuxai.

Copycat arch

In our old Lonely Planet guide, we had read about a remote wild elephant observation tower facilitated by a humble village, so we deviated to find the experience. Expecting to find groups of like minded, we hardly found anyone around, villagers or otherwise.

So we ventured off the beaten path, past the sign that ominously read Enter at own risk to find the tower in the jungle. The trail soon morphed into an intrepid adventure of wit, will, and endurance. We got lost in valley deep rutted trails, crossing creeks and playing chicken with a herd of water buffalo before finally beating a defeated retreat back to the village with only a couple of battle scars to our iron horse.

Retreating buffalo

Back at the village, we finally found someone who spoke enough broken English to inform us No elephants now. Gone, one month ago. Dry season, gone way back to jungle.

(Later that evening, with the help of the internet, we discovered more accurately that in fact NO elephants have been sighted in that area since 2010. Apparently there was a confrontation between a marauding elephant and villagers resulting in 1 villager dead, and in retaliation, a dead elephant. Needless to say, the elephants moved on at the detriment of tourist income to the residents. So much for depending on out of date books for possible activities.)

We continued on the road from the capital, following the Mekong River south which for the most part formed the natural Thai/Laos border. Now in the lower altitude regions, the land and roads became flat and monotonous.

The farther south we went, we noticed a dried out and scrubby land where it appeared the locals had forsaken their rice paddies in exchange for cattle that wandered in abundance unhindered on road and properties. Besides dodging potholes, we were now dodging cowpies. As well as all the new members of the animal kingdom! Calves, chicks, kids (baby goats - not children), small puppies, and even little kittens - all adorably cute. At 1 point, we also tried to avoid a cloud of butterflies that suddenly appeared from out of nowhere directly into our path.

Occasionally the roadside vendor stands broke the scenery. Oranges 1 day stacked high like pyramids on table after table, another day was bananas, then dried fish, then watermelons. Everyone had the same, how can they sell all their wares when they all have the same and are all right next to each other?

We spotted 1 banana seller who also had a couple of pineapples so we stopped for a small bunch of bananas and a pineapple which we ate right on the spot (as everyone else tried to sell us more of their product!) The sweet juicy pineapple was the best we have ever tasted!

1 of many stands

Ordering food at roadside eateries was always a challenge. Most times we settled for soup. One lady was a happy vendor and quizzed us on how to pronounce in English the different denominations of Lao currency as she wrote out our slow verbal pronunciation. As we departed, she jovially blew us a kiss. Not a Lao expression but no doubt something she learned from a previous foreigner.

A few areas in southern Laos were covered in unsightly garbage all along the roadside ditches and right next to towns. This was something we never noticed in northern Laos.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Plain of Jars

From Luang Prabang (Laos), we headed east on our motorcycle to see the curious ancient relics known as the Plain of Jars which reminded us of the mysterious Easter Island stone statues.

The first half of our day's travel there was in beautiful high altitude mountains, and in spots, we climbed right up into the clouds...it was a biker's dream ride!

Mountain mist

Eventually the road and land settled into an easy, flat, high altitude plain of rolling hills hills and grasslands. Chilled, we were happy to check into our dibs for a nice hot shower.

We spent the first part of the next morning bouncing over very rough and dusty dirt roads getting to 3 sites where the megalith stone jars sit, frozen in a mute stance as they have been for many hundreds of years.

Site 1

Site 2

Site 3

During the US war in neighbouring Vietnam, the conflict crossed the border into Laos. For a period of 9 years, the US dropped an average of a plane load of bombs every 8 minutes for 24 hours per day in Laos. There were at least 270 million cluster bomblets dropped as part of the bombing but 80 million failed to detonate.

We were in an area that received the most concentrated bombing and the effects are still seen today. MAG is just 1 of many entities whose mission is clearing land of UXO (unexploded ordinances) that plague the land. By 1 estimate, at the rate of clearing it will take 300 years to complete. Bomb craters were visible as we walked the site. (Yes, this site was cleared and safe of UXOs as indicated within the MAG markers.)

Mines Advisory Group

Huge bomb crater

Anthropologists agree that in all probability the jars served as vessels for the placement of deceased. It is possible that any lids made were of perishable materials as very few have been found; stone discs have been found but are believed to be grave markers.

That's all well and good, but Jordan has his own hypothesis:
It actually was a failed, unperfected, entrepreneurial venture many many years ahead of its time. It was an endeavour to make culverts. But the entrepreneur not only didn't do a thorough market study that would have told him that there was no market for the product, but he also hadn't perfected the "culvert". That came many years later when they realized culverts must be open at both ends. I formed this hypothesis (that I will present to the Society of Anthropologists soon) when quite by chance we came upon this scene in a field... 

Modern day Plain of Jars

You be the judge.