The “sleeper” train

Days 138/139, Monday/Tuesday 21/22 May 2012, Vientiane to Bangkok

Happy birthday mum !

It was a much quieter night last night thankfully so I managed some sleep ahead of the overnight sleeper train ride tonight, though given my poor record I am sure there will not be a lot of sleep happening. I slept in till 8.00 again and mooched around in the coolness of my room after breakfast for the rest of the morning, but I am up to date on emails, blogs and plans are all done – I even glanced at a few jobs sites. And then the internet died again, before I could actually upload the blog post I completed.

I had to check out of the guesthouse by 12.00 mid-day, but the bus to the Thai border and the train station was not until 3.00. I had planned on visiting the last of the key temples in Vientiane and then moving on to the national museum when it re-opened after lunch at 1.00. However with a massive flash and a loud bang the rain came down so I decided to hang out in a cafe instead – and the wifi didn’t work there either. Oh well.

Once the rain passed I wandered up to Sisaket, which houses the oldest remaining temple in Vientiane, the Siamese sacked all the temples with the exception of Sisaket in the late 1800’s
Sisaket had some quite nice frescoes but in a terrible state of repair, though we were not allowed to take photos.

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What it did have that I really liked was a massive collection of buddhas going back to the 15th century in the cloisters, some recovered from other sites and stupas around Vientiane. The bulk of these are small and contained in small niches around the walls, but there are a large number of bigger Buddha figures, some made of wood and some from stone.

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I took a lot of photos…. possibly the last you will see of Buddha figures for a while, maybe ever – who knows.

After Sisaket I went up to the national museum, I had read was largely disappointing and in that I was not disappointed, as it was – largely disappointing. Not a great museum for non Laos tourists – and not even a huge amount of information for the Laos people either. I will say, given the poverty in Laos, a museum is not their foremost priority.

I hung around the GH for a while waiting for my ride to the bus station, to get the VIP bus to the border. This turned out to be van that arrived forty minutes late and took me and some other confused tourists to Thana Leng train station, just inside the Laos border where we joined a large bunch of other tourists and caught a small train across the Mekong and into Thailand.

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Laos – I liked the way the train tracks were in the middle of a road bridge, and they just stop all the cars.

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Thailand

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The ride arrived in Nong Khai before it officially left Thana Leng, where we had an hour long wait for the train to depart for Bangkok.

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I was in a second class sleeper carriage, car no 3. This comprised of two rows of seats that faced each other, that folded down into a single bed, with another bunk that folded down from the wall above. Fortunately – and selfishly, I did not have to share my two seats with anyone so could sprawl in the air conditioning until the train left, which it did nicely on time as well at 6.20 PM.

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The beds started coming down almost immediately, it was far too early for me to even consider considering going to sleep so I drank the two cans of beer I bought at the station and watched the view until the sunset and it was too dark too see any more. The windows were way too dirty to consider pictures – and to be honest it wasn’t all that exciting !

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Once there was nothing to see out the window I popped my current favourite travelling music on my walkman, Japanese post-rockers – Mono and spent the next hour and a half knocking off the last few pages of Haruki Murakami’s IQ84 trilogy. I really enjoyed the books – though cannot explain why, not my normal reading, it was different !

I then spent the next eight hours not sleeping in a train….

We arrived in the outskirts of Bangkok soon after sun up and I was foolishly thinking we would therefore arrive on time at 6.25 AM, but no, ridiculous thought Phil. We arrived in the station at 7.45, having spent most of the preceding hour stopped at various points in suburban Bangkok. I am going to say it is not like the suburban Auckland I lived in.
I decided to stay one night in Bangkok as two sleeper trains in a row is too much for this old man, so before leaving the station I booked my ticket to Chumphon for tomorrow night and then went in search of lodgings. I couldn’t see anything immediately around the station so ended up jumping on the Metro and going to my old haunt the Hostelling International hostel in Sukhumvit. Sadly they are renovating at the moment so I ended up in a dorm room, one night cannot be too bad and at least it is cheap and easy.

As I am in Bangkok and have some nice cheap shopping handy I have decided to ditch a few of my more ‘used’ possessions. I spent the afternoon in MBK mall looking for bright shiny things to buy. My lovely Keen sandals have pretty much given up the ghost, though I am still tempted to get them repaired, though I did grab a pair of $40 Converse sneakers as my new day shoes – when I am not wearing jandals/flip flops/thongs (for the Aussies). I will decide on the Keens tomorrow – they have been faithful friends and I feel bad even thinking about leaving them in the dorm hallway. I am not going to do any more trekking type walking so the day pack I picked up in Miri (Sarawak, Borneo) is goneburgers , it is pretty stuffed and utterly feral even though I have washed it a few times. I picked up another messenger type camera bag that I can use when I am Europe as well as a new wallet.

I loved these shoes in a shop in Siam Centre, reminded me of my days in London in the 80’s.

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I snapped some sticker art as I went.

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I got back to the dorm to find it fairly full, so had a feed and chatted to a young English guy for a while and then went to bed. In the dorm room there is this really weird older (I think) Japanese guy. He was asleep most of the afternoon and kept coming and going for most of the night, when he leaves the room he turns his video camera on – i kept covering it with a flannel. I am not sure what the hell he is doing – but he is one weird dude.

Goodby old friends, hopefully someone will find you useful.

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Vientiane

Days 136/137, Saturday/Sunday 19/20 May 2012, Vientiane

I had a wee sleep in this morning, by my standards anyway and wasn’t up till 8.00. it is pouring down outside which is just perfect as it means I can have a good session of lying down, reading and catching up on emails etc. I was planning on spending the whole day doing nothing except organising the remaining two weeks in SE Asia, but the internet died soon after breakfast – and didn’t get going until late afternoon, bugger.

The rain stopped around mid-day and I ventured out for a stroll under what started out to be cloudy skies, it was quite humid and once the clouds cleared after a couple of hours got quite hot as well. Foolishly I brought neither sunglasses nor sun screen and regretted both of them ,especially the glasses, as the sun got brighter and brighter.

Vientiane has quite an historical relationship with France, the street names, use Rue and Avenue and the main thoroughfares are wide open and shady.

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Vientiane even has its own Arc De Triumphe replica – Patuxai and was built in 1969.

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From there I walked up to Pha That Luangis, a large golden stuppa and the most important monument in Laos.

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The site was started in the 1500’s and there were four wat surrounding it, of which only two remain.

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I loved these small family plots inside one of the wats.

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There must be two lonely people.

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One of the great things in Vientiane, and soe rare in SE Asisa, so many places – including one of the parks are smoke free.

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I walked back to the GH and after a wee cool down then went to a local hair dresser for a light trim – I was not filed with confidence, so didn’t get a full haircut or let her loose on my face with a razor. So I went back to the GH and attacked my facial hair with a razor myself. It took 45 minutes !

It was getting close to sundown so I went for a walk along the bank of Mekong, long with hundreds of the local people and not a small number of tourists. I found a perfect spot to capture some of the people passing by on their bicycles. And again, unusual for SE Asia – motorbikes were banned along this strip – so nice !

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I had dinner on my own in a local cafe and then went back to my room and watched another episode of Sherlock – it is great. It was a very noisy night in town tonight, mainly tourists drunkenly yelling on the street. I didn’t get a huge amount of sleep.

Sunday morning was as slow a start as yesterday. Today the internet was going and I resolved to stay in my room and complete my plan for the next two weeks. With guide book, laptop and smart phone often all being used at once, I spent almost eight frustrating hours trying to come up with a workable plan. At every turn I was frustrated with time tables that did not get me to where I wanted to be when I wanted to be there, so decided to give up on road/rail transport for some legs and fly -which meant then trying to find combinations of airports that worked…. grrrrrrr !

But I finally got there. It was not the plan I started with, I am not going to any more historical sites, just two weeks of beeches and diving, with two overnight train rides to get to my first location – Koh Tao on Thailand’s east coast. Now the planning is done I believe I have made the right choice. Two weeks of mainly relaxation, with some diving – and some healthy living thrown in, should get me ready for my trip to England.

I ran into David and Debbie in the GH reception and they invited me along with them to go bowling, what an awesome idea. And a whole load of fun !!

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David

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and Debbie.

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Bowling shoes – the person who invented them must have had a sense of humour. I mean what self respecting person wears green and gold ?

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You have to love that poise, so graceful 🙂

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And I did kick some ass – it was my lucky night – two strikes !

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This was followed with a very nice Indian meal at a local restaurant and, for me, one more episode of Sherlock in bed.

It was with a sense of relief I closed my eyes – the remainder of my time in SE Asia is all planned and accommodation in most places is booked. All I need to do is turn up.

I have updated “the plan” page with the new plan.

12 hours on a bus, well – make that one and a bit buses

Day 135, Friday 18 May 2012, Savannakhet to Vientiane

Frustratingly I was still awake at midnight so I popped half a pill in the end so I could some sleep. The room was too warm to sleep with the fan off and too noisy with the fan on. I was awake at five and spent the next hour pondering on whether to go direct to Vientiane, which was my intention yesterday or go to Tha Kaek – which was the plan the day before. I want to go to Kock Lo cave which is about half way between both places, and it sounded like a hassle getting from Kock Lo to Vientiane so I will go to Vietiane and hope they have day tours there – which will be fine by me.

With that in mind I was up at 6.00, on a tuk tuk to the bus station by 6.30, and the bus to Vientane by 6.45. Sadly the bus made it about 100 metres out of the bus station before breaking down ! it is now over half an hour later and I am typing this as we wait. The bus has four human passengers and a seemingly endless supply of mosquitoes.

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The King of Bus never moved another inch !

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Though not through lack of effort from the man in the hole.

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And now it is the following day….

After an hour of waiting we were bundled onto another bus which was not quite the standard of the one we left – but at least it was moving. It was pretty much the same as the one I was on yesterday – with a wee bit less leg room and a whole load more passengers, though for the first four hours to Tha Kaek I did have both seats to myself.

We stopped for a break at Tha Kaek and I grabbed a wee, a snack and some water and jumped back on the bus to ensure my window seat for the long leg to Vientiane. As I was waiting for the bus to leave I spotted my Dutch friends from Don Det – David and Debbie, getting out of a tuk tuk and on to the bus, awesome – some much needed company. The journey from Tha Kaek took almost seven hours and the bus was packed, with people sitting in the aisles for most of the way, but I had a seat and a window, which was better than some. I also noticed that even though some were sitting on a plastic stool in the aisle they paid the same price as me.

If you can put it on a stick, its for sale !

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It was a long slow journey, but at least I had people to talk to. We arrived in Vientiane at 6.30 PM – just under a twelve hour trip and my back was killing me.

We found a guesthouse and booked in for the night, and arranged to meet for dinner. The first thing I did when I got to my room was wash my hands and splash some water on my face. The amount of dirt that came out was just amazing – the joys of a long open window bus ride. Debbie had a yearning for pizza and there was no way I was going to argue with that, especially as I had only eaten a bag of crisps all day.

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An early night followed, exhausted.

Wat Phou.

Day 133, Wednesday 16 May 2012, Champasak – Paske

Damnit, I should never have left Don Det ! Crap sleep in Champasak… As always I was up early(ish), I had breakfast and a quick catch up blog post and then took a walk up to the ATM as I was running low on cash. The ‘ATM’ is actually a guy in the bank who gives you cash from your card for a small fee. However, he requires ID – which I did not have in my pocket due to my licence being in the wallet I lost on Don Det. It was a quick trip back to the guest house to get my passport. Seeing as it was already approximately a billion degrees at only 8.30 am, I grabbed a bicycle from the guest house and rode back to the bank. However, my USD debit card was not acceptable as it does not have my name on it (for exactly this reason) so I had to suck up the pain and get cash on my visa.

Once I had enough money to pay my room expenses I settled up with the guest house and took my recently borrowed cycle and pedaled off in what I hoped was the general direction of Wat Phou – at this point there really is only one road, so it was 50/50 ! The ride took about half an hour under scorching sun, frustrating at times as there are no road signs – to what is the only reason that people come to Champasak. The only sign I saw on the ride suggested Wat Phou was on the Mekong, about 100 metres before the road took a sharp right inland. The ride was great and I found a lovely roadside Buddha.

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as well as some awesome shutters 🙂

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and of course, a wat.

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I finally made it to Wat Phou with only having to double check directions once at a un-signposted intersection. Wat Phou is a Khmer religious site and dates back to the 5th century, pre-dating Angkor by a number of centuries. The site is built into the base of a small hill range, which makes it quite different to the sites around Angkor. It was originally constructed as a Khmer Hindu temple, but in the 11 – 13th centuries it was rebuilt as a Theravada Buddhist site of worship and the remains today are mainly from that period.

And now I am going whinge, like the pom I am !

This is the most significant Khmer site in Laos, it pre-dates Angkor – so  it is old, really old, and in terms of SE Asian architecture, quite important. It is a major tourist attraction – why do none of the staff speak even rudimentary English as so many Lao people do? Not meaning to be the arrogant/ignorant English speaker, but come on – even the French speak some English. It was embarrassing for me and the staff as I tried to understand why I needed to pay more for a golf buggy to drive me to the site. I ended up with the buggy – a waste of money.

The two largest sections of ruins are under re-construction, and I mean with cranes and stuff, so not accessible, and hardly photogenic. And yes I agree with the rebuild – if it is to Angkorian standards.

It was noisy, lots of construction noise and as there was an extraordinary number of vendors in the site playing radios, full of awful Lao pop music.

There was not a bit of signage as to what was what – and stupidly I grabbed a French guide – that was my fault.

Whinges over, the bad things….

Ok some of these are good things, just wrapped in bad things, I mean who cannot resist a centuries old stone guard draped in pink !

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Ok, they may be half hidden in modern tat, but they are still cool, this elephant carving and Buddha foot carved into the hillside were just amazing !

There was some good stuff to see, but probably bad timing on my behalf with all the work going on, maybe a sign before we handed over our $$ advising that reconstruction work was being carried out would also be good. I would have visited anyway, but you know – customer service. There were some awesome carvings here, which I really liked.

The good things….

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The carvings – awesome to see some Khmer carvings on site again.

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Vishnu riding Garuda – carving on the sanctuary.

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The Elephant, the light was terrible for this shot

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The crocodile. This was possibly the site of human sacrifice, in the very early days, pre conversion to Buddhism.

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A Buddha figure, where it lay- I loved this.

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Don’t get me wrong I enjoyed Wat Phou, just not as much as I should have, given how much I love ancient sites, especially those of the Khmer – and how long it has been since I have been to one.

I had a quick ride back to town, now I knew the way, but it was stinking hot and I was glad to get back into the shade of the GH and sink a large water and a Beer Lao over a quick lunch. After lunch the GH owner took me to up to the main road so I could get a mini-van the hour or so back to Pakse. Turns out the wait was more middle of the road than roadside.

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And the mini-van was more back of truck – at least it was air conditioned ! The Keen’s are looking a wee bit shabby.

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To be fair I think I was supposed to be in the back of the cab, but being a six foot westerner rather than a five foot Laotian, it wasn’t going to happen. I was dropped at the market bus station and met what was possibly the only honest tuk tuk driver in Pakse, his opening offer was half the price I was advised was fair – I accepted on the spot and got a ride back to the Sabaidy 2 hostel – the warmest in town, and got my old room back.

I asked after Danny when I arrived and was advised she was still up at the hospital, so I hung around relaxing for a while in the warmth – watched another episode of Sherlock – loving it. I caught up with Danny later in the afternoon and she was glad to see an old face again – Mike had been through yesterday and Laura the day before. We shared a curry for dinner and she borrowed my laptop to Skype her parents and give them the news about the crash and the burns. While they are not life threateningly bad, I think she has finally realised she may not be able to fully continue her travels, and that infection is a probability, scarring is a definite and things wont be easy over the next few days that she has to stay in Pakse. Now that Laura, Mike and I have all left town for good, those of us who were there at the time of the accident. The people that come through the GH in the future, though I am sure they will help out, they wont be the same as those of us that were there and had that ‘bond’.

We said our farewells early, I wished her all the best, and regrettably I never got an email address : (

Canoe across the Mekong

Day 132, Tuesday 15 May 2012 – 4000 Islands to Champasak

I was awake early again after another pretty good sleep, awesome ! It will be such a shame to leave, but it is time to move on – so today I head back north to Champasak to visit ancient Wat Phou.

The mini-bus leaves at 11.00, but I still wanted to get to Khone Phapheng falls as I missed visiting them the day I lost my wallet. I sunk a quick coffee from the guesthouse, rented a bike from next door and pedalled off to Don Khon Island.

The falls are only a couple of kilometres away and I was there before 8.00 Am, early enough to beat the bike park security guy (though he got me on the way back and i had to pay the parking fee – few cents) but not early enough to not have to pay the entrance fee to the falls area.

I was the first tourist there and way too early for all the vendors to set up shop !

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There are a large number of vendors who live here and sadly the place is just one big rubbish dump – the falls are stunning, but behind every bush there is garbage, so terribly sad. I realise that this is not the west and an environmentally friendly garbage disposal system is not at hand, nor is any garbage collection. However, this is a stunning area – one of Southern Laos key tourist attractions, the local people earn most of their income from the park – they should respect it.

Anyway – the falls…. they are not tall, but they are huge, water entering from every direction – I would love to see this in the wet – and I am planning on a return to Laos to see the river when it is full. It is an awesome beast.

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After the falls I rode back to the GH for breakfast and then packed up my stuff for Mike to ferry me along with my Dutch and Czech companions from the past two nights over to the mainland to catch our buses to the different places we are going. I had a good time on Don Det !

I was in a full mini-van of people going to Pakse, I was the only one to be dropped off in the village of Don Muang on the edge of the Mekong. Back in the dark ages+ of my early travelling I would be almost terrified to be dropped off alone in a new town, especially the remote edge towns where long distance buses deposit tourists so they can get local transport to the tourist areas – where people don’t speak English. Nowadays, while not exactly ecstatic about the whole thing, I am at least comfortable with it and do relish the challenge of my next goal – in this case getting over the river to the town of Champasak.

I was walking down the towards the river, staring at this massive storm heading towards me, I wondered if anyone was making the crossing giving the pending storm but some guy came up to me and asked if I wanted to go to Champasak – not that I could think of any other reason some falang with a backpack would be heading down to the river ! I said yes and he guided me across the littered beach to his canoe – yep a wee fishing canoe, I was expecting at least a large canoe, but at least he had a motor.

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Once he cleared all the fishing nets away I was bundled in and we headed out across the river with a lovely cross wind building as we left!

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There was a couple of tense moments as we approached Champasak as the wind got quite strong and the waves were splashing over the side on to my pack and day bag. My pack had a waterproof cover on it, but naturally my day bag with everything important in it had nothing – and neither did I. I really thought we might go over, I was very confident I could swim to the shore as the current was not strong, but after the experience of losing my wallet I was terrified I would lose everything ! luckily nothing happened except I arrived on the beach at Champasak soaking wet – to the amusement of many of the locals.

I staggered up the hill to the main street and was picked up by a tuk tuk driver – who just happened to have a guest house, I agreed to check it out and got in – luckily as it hammered down.

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The gueshouse was pretty cool, a few westerners so I agreed to stay, decent price and it had a Mekong side restaurant and bar which was cool.

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I hung out there for a while, waited for the rain to stop, had some lunch, dried off and then went for a walk around down town Champasak. Champasak has some lovely old, fading and dying colonial buildings, as well as the more traditional Laos homes and temples. It is pretty much a one street town.

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I loved the buildings, sadly, like the one above, a number of them are derelict and abandoned.

After the walk I settled down on the deck over the Mekong with a bottle Beer Lao and leached wifi from the hostel over the road – like everyone else was doing.

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A while later Laura, who I met in Pakse and a French girl arrived at the GH, and it was great to have some company. She had just been in Pakse and had gone for a hospital visit with Danny (I now know it is not Dani), which was cool.

Laura gave me this photo she took of the four us in Pakse hospital. I am the one who is twice the age of any combination of two of the others…

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It was another pretty good – if damp day.

+ I refer to the dark ages as a long time ago, not that it was a dark time ! (I am loving these things that I don’t know the name of )

Day trip up the ‘Kong

Day 131, Monday 14 May, 2012 – 4000 Islands.

I had another good sleep, Don Det is quieter and cooler than most places I have been to, the bed is not the most comfortable but I am sleeping so well for some reason, long may it last.

Mike was going over to Ban Kasang on the mainland to pick up some supplies so David, Debbie and I went with him to hopefully get some cash from the single ATM in the area. If I could get cash then I would do a day boat tour with Mike up the river to visit the real 4000 islands area, if not then I was going to be spending the day trying to find money so I could pay Mike for the accommodation and food I have had over the past few days.

Fortunately I was able to get cash (YES !) but for some reason David and Debbie couldn’t, at least they had some Euros they could change – I had used all my meagre USD supplies in Luang Prabang. We were the first people into the bank for David to change money, they got it out of the safe in A4 paper box lids…

Dan Kasang waterfront.

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So, I was on for the river tour and one more night on Don Det. Mike bought a great looking fish for lunch and we were back on the island for an hour while Mike and his wife prepared food for the trip.

We left at 10.30 and headed up river. Mike has told us that the real 4000 islands do not start until further up stream, that there is really between 8000 and 10000 islands at the moment and that it will be all totally different after rainy season – when most of the islands will be under water.

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About fifteen minutes up river, and past Don Det, lies the gateway to the 4000 islands, a fairly shallow section of river that changes almost daily, we motored slowly though this section hitting the bottom once and getting stuck up a channel and having to back track another time. Once through there we were in fairly clear water and motored up through the islands. The area is about 60 kms long and at its widest point is over 15kms wide, that is one big river and though you cannot see its vastness from a boat it is still an impressive sight.

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Mike was taking us to his favourite island for a bbq lunch and swim, however when we arrived it was populated by a few guys who were living there for a few days while fishing.

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Mike was a bit ticked by this as it was a perfect spot, nice beach with a shade tree – and there are not too many of those combinations around, as we found out while searching. In the end we just pulled up at a beach. Mike made a fire and BBQ’d the fish.

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While his daughter, Joy made a quick sun shelter.

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We spent a couple of hours lounging, swimming, drinking beer and eating that lovely fresh fish – and then the weather starting to come down.

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We could see a large storm front moving down the Mekong, so decided to run slightly ahead of it – enjoy the clouds and the pouring rain in the distance but aim to stay dry and safe at the same time. It was a good ride back to the guest house, it was a shame it was only 3:30 PM rather than after sunset, but it was not going to be safe in what is basically a big canoe on the river and there was going to be no sunset anyway.

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After a chill on the hammock in front of the bungalows I joined David and Debbie and the Czech people for a quite dinner and a drink.

Early to bed. Exhausted – after doing not much all day !

I lose something important – it had to happen I guess

Day 130, Sunday 13 May, 2012 – 4000 Islands

It was a reasonably cool night and I managed a pretty good sleep, there is no air con in the bungalow and i didn’t need the fan either, such a relief after the humidity and heat of Pakse. I was up early in the am, I should have gone for a run as the weather was perfect for it, but it didn’t occur to me until later in the day unfortunately.

My bungalow is the middle one, the Mekong is about three metres in front.

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After a breakfast I rented a push bike from the guesthouse next door and went riding. I took a ride into the main village on Don Det, where all the backpackers hang out and it was pretty feral, not my scene at all. The place is OK, a busy wee village, but it is full of what I call the crusty+ backpacker. This is the weed smoking, dreadlocked, tattooed load of young people who are just travelling to get wasted rather than looking around seeing and experiencing different things. I don’t like them and try to avoid them as much as possible, and well – they probably don’t like me either…

So, I am glad I am staying about ten minutes away by bike and with town done I turned round and cycled back the way I came with the intention of going back to town later in the day as they at least had wifi in some of the cafes and I had none at my place.

Along with Don Khong and Don Khon, Don Det is one of the only islands in the Si Phan Don (4000 islands) that are allowed to have tourists staying. Don Khon is connected to Don Det by an old rail bridge. The French were the first westerners to visit the area and after numerous attempts to make it up the Mekong which failed every time at the ferocious water falls that are around Don’s Det and Khon they built a railway to bypass them in the mid 1800s (I think). The railways do not exist anymore, but the raised pathway and the bridge are used by the small amount of local traffic.

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I crossed over the bridge to Don Khon and cycled around for a couple of hours before heading back in the mid day sun to the GH to rest for a while. The islands are quite nice larger than expected and the paddy fields are dry as a bone. I would love to come back when it is wet though.

I found this nice beach on Don Khon and went for a walk around the rocks. You can see from the dirt deposits on the top how high the river gets in the wet.

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And then to the far south of the island where the French load their boats on to the train.

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A rice paddy (in summer)

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One of the many temples on Don Khon.

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bits of Don Det.

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I had tentatively arranged with the Aussies from last night (Matt and Jess) to meet them for a ride to town for lunch and wifi, after hanging round a bit I rode off on my own my own knowing I would see them eventually. I made it up to one of the cafes full of crusties, and after twenty minutes of using their wifi and I still hadn’t been served I left in search of something better. I stopped in a cafe half way back to my place and Matt and Jess arrived a few minutes later. I went to get my USB drive from my wallet as I had copied some movies over for them and then realised my wallet was not in my pocket, or anywhere else for that matter – Shiteburgers ! I knew I had it when i left the guesthouse as I put the USB drive in there so it must have fallen from my pocket on one of the bike tracks. Thankfully Matt and Jess covered my lunch, embarrassingly for me ! and I spent an hour or so frantically riding around to see if I could find it, to no avail. I didn’t have much money in it and my eftpos and one debit card – of which I had a spare, but the biggest pain is going to be getting a new drivers licence. (It is 2 days later I have just got internet access and checked on the NZTA web site- it is going to be a pain !)

I pretty much did nothing else for the rest of the day : ( I had options to get cash, ATM on the mainland and Mike the GH owner was going over first thing, and if the at failed I could get cash on my credit card but at usurious exchange rates – but at least I could pay my bills…

That afternoon David and Debbie a Dutch couple arrived to stay, and a Czech / American couple dropped in for dinner. We had a good night drinking beers and chatting and watching another amazing lightening storm on the horizon, again there was no thunder just spectacular flashes of lightening. Soon after the show finished the wind picked up and was getting very strong. Mike advised us to pack our bags just in case it got bad enough that we should leave the bungalows for the shelter of the restaurant – and then the power went off…

It is nigh Impossible to manually focus on lightning, so sorry for out of focus photos !

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The winds died down after half and hour or so, so we all went our separate ways and went to bed.

+ wow, this is the first one of those thingies they have in real books where you add some additional stuff at the end that doesn’t really fit with the flow of the narrative. Pretty much how much of this blog has been though, so I am surprised I waited so long to use it. So, on with the content of the +. Crusties were a name given to a group of hippy like characters where drifting around England in the late eighties, going to festivals etc. They were not quite so peace and love as the hippies were. Plus they didn’t wash clothes that much hence the crusty name.

I had to use + rather than the more traditional * as MS Word doesn’t like you starting a sentence with an asterix.

Monk walks and on to Pakse

Day 126, Wednesday 9 May 2012, Luang Prabang to Pakse

Weird night, I heard voices on the street outside and thought – cool, it must be time to get up and go see the monk walk. I staggered out of bed, checked my watch and realised it was only 1:30 and not 5:30, back to bed. But I never really slept soundly again damnit.

I did get up at 5:45 when the alarm went off and was out the door soon after to catch the monk walk, though disappointingly I really only got the end of it.  Luckily I did not listen to the advice of the guest house and go at 6.30 as I would have missed it all.

At dawn the monks from the local monasteries walk the two main parallel streets in Luang Prabang and collected alms, mainly from the local people, though some tourists also buy food and give to the monks. This is of course, a major tourist attraction in LP, and I was amazed at how many westerners are actually here – they obviously wheel out all the gentle folk on package tours for this ‘attraction’ – the tourists I hardly ever see when travelling more cheaply. I had a similar experience at Bagan in Myanmar, very few people around until sunset when all these tour buses magically appear and discharge a flood of tour groupers, who rapidly consume all there is to see and then disappear back on to the air conditioned buses to return to the sanctuary of their resorts.

There are numerous signs around LP advising people to respect the monks, don’t fire flashes in to their faces, keep out of the way and don’t crowd them. As you would expect, this seemed to be largely ignored. I kept my distance and took what photos I could without flash.

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It was an interesting experience.

I cannot say this enough, I really liked LP, it is quiet and considered, a little cooler than Hanoi was – though still 33 degrees ! it is off season so things are a little cheaper than peak. My guesthouse is comfy and close to where I want to be, I have met some good people to hang with, and apart from being sick again I am pretty chilled. It is also very clean and tidy!

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After breakfast and a wee break I grabbed a tuk tuk to the airport, check in was an hour and half before the flight time so I was there very early, unbelievably I actually went to sleep in the departure lounge on the most uncomfortable seats ever, I only woke when a boarding announcement was made. We all got on the plane and it left almost forty minutes early : ) so cool…

A re-enactment of actual events…

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It was an ok flight, i regret not having my camera for the landing approach as there was some great shots to be had. The Mekong is so much clearer in the south of Laos compare to the north and the land is significantly flatter as well as far more arid.

I shared a ride into town with some other travellers and found my way to the Sabady 2 hostel, the guide book recommended place. I have a cheap room, fan only and share bathroom, but half the price of Luang Prabang, the advantage being there are other travellers here.

I checked in and then dumped myself on an outside table with a group of other people, all a lot younger than me, but got myself involved in the conversation and end up having lunch, and then dinner with the group, as well as a wee wander around Pakse.

We had dinner at a Mekong side restaurant, of the four things we ordered, only one person got what they expected, it wasn’t me. My veges turned into a chicken dish that was the hottest thing I have had in asia, I couldn’t eat it ! The good news is my stomach seems OK now – yes !

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Pak Ou Caves and Kuang Si Falls ‘tour’

Day 122, Saturday 5 May 2012, Pak Ou caves and Tat Kuang Si falls

I had another crappy nights sleep which is a real pain as the bed is just sooooo comfortable, so I was up early and in to town for breakfast before heading off on my boat tour to Pak Ou Cave a couple of hours up the Mekong River.

“please book now and you will have a full taste of happiness” – loved it!

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There was a bit of faffing around at the jetty before we got going and once we did get going it was a pretty slow ride up stream. Though very low the river is immensely powerful and I would hate to get caught in some of the swirling eddies and strong currents we saw from the boat. There was seven of us on the boat, and apart from two Russian ? women travelling together, no-one said anything to anyone else all the way to the caves.

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We stopped a couple of times on the way, the first time to get some gas and the second at the whisky making village, though there was no whisky making going on at all, nor any signs of it either.

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We were of course able to purchase silk scarves and other souvenirs… the highlight for me was the sign for the WC !

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These fast boats are water taxis to many of the small villages up and down the Mekong. They are quite popular with a certain type of tourist, but apparently a number of people are killed each year in high speed accidents. I only saw one boat go flying past and the driver was wearing a crash helmet – and I don’t mean the flimsy kind used here by motorcycle riders, this guy had a proper helmet on. The western passengers did not.

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It was a further half an hour up river to the caves. The area is incredibly beautiful and I would love to come back after the rainy season when the river is high, apparently it looks a lot clearer then. my photos really do not do it justice, it was close to mid day and the sun was incedibly bright.

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The caves are the home to about 4000 buddha figures, some dating back many many years. The caves were originally used as a place of worship by the animist villagers prior to the introduction of Buddhism about six hundred years ago.

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My favourite.

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There are two caves one just above the normal high water level and another up the hill, not many people took the walk up to the top as it was blisteringly hot again today, though the top cave was not as good as the bottom one.

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I thought it was all pretty cool, and worth the trip.

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While waiting for the boat to head back down river I started up a conversation with Bettina, Austrian working for the European union in Brussels. She has a very interesting job and is well travelled, so we shared travel stories all the way back to LP.
The afternoon session was a visit to Kuang Si falls by van. The falls are about thirty km from LP and extremely popular with tourists and locals – especially on a hot sunny Saturday. I met a couple of Aussies on the bus and we clambered to the top of the falls before heading back down for a swim in the pools below. The water here is an odd turquoise colour and I am assuming this must be due to some mineral or other. It is extremely pretty!

The falls also has a small bear rescue park run by an Australian bear rescue group that have sites around SE Asia. These Asiatic Black bears would likely have been sent to china to farms where they would be used for their bile

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The top.

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The biggest spider I have seen in SE Asia

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The falls

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The pools

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As expected large numbers of young westerners ignored this sign !

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Once back in LP I checked out the guesthouse that Bettina is staying in as I wanted one closer to the centre of town and also one with wifi that worked. The price was good so I have reserved a room at the Khong Savath guesthouse and arranged to move in tomorrow morning.

I had a quiet dinner of spring rolls, chicken and cashews with rice and lovely Lao beer and was in bed watching Arsenal draw with Norwich City by 7.30 !

Vhat Vat is Vat

Day 121, Friday 4 May 2012, Luang Prabang

Happy 22nd Birthday Dom !

Luang Prabang (LP) is a UNESCO protected town situated where the Nam Khan joins the Mekong River. The town itself does not appear to be particularly old but it does contain a large number of old temples or Vat’s as they are known in Laos. Architecturally the temples are similar to those in Thailand, and at first glance Laos shares many things with that country – food being one of them. There are also a number of colonial buildings and Laotian style dwellings in town, and I must say from first glance it is a pretty town, quiet and gentle and a huge relief after the hustle and bustle of Hanoi.

I had a miserable sleep, I obviously compensated for the awesome effort the night before by having a terrible sleep last night. So I was up early again, wifi was still not working and breakfast wasn’t part of the deal so I took a walk into town to find both, preferably in the same place. The main drag Sisavangvong Rd (and the last time I am going to mention a Laos street name) was about ten minutes from the hostel, with a good portion of that walk above the low but beautiful Nam Khan river. I soon reached down town LP, which is basically one main street a hundred metres long full of tour shops and restaurants. The town is of course, significantly bigger than this and full of nice shady, quiet streets to stroll down. It is now well past peak season for tourists so it is a perfect time to visit, with just enough people to keep most of the restaurants open, but nowhere near crowded.
I walked past Vat Sene, – the wats are Vat in Laos…

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And then Vat Sickharam

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I booked myself onto a tour to Pak Ou cave for tomorrow and picked up a decent map of LP, then stopped for breakfast and an internet session at a local cafe – before heading back to the GH for a shower and to get ready to start exploring.

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I decided I would do the peninsula part of LP first, walk up the side of the Nam Khan, stopping on one of the bridges and then down the Mekong to the centre of town and check out some vats on the way.

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Vat Xieng Tong is one of the main temple sites in LP, it has been restored over the years, restoration work continues at a number of temples throughout the town. Laos is a practising Buddhist country and a large number of the young men choose to do time as monks, so a number of the temples here have working monasteries.

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I really liked the decorated doorways.

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The glass murals

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The small woodblock prints on the walls and pillars.

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And these lovely old Buddha figures.

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The renovation work at Vat Pak Khan has just started so the monastery is still in semi-original condition, I arrived soon after the monks had eaten.

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Vat Sickhounmaung

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And my favourite, Vat Xieng Muan – as it was small and a bit quirky and I so loved these doors. Why do I love doors ? who knows !

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It was very hot and still here, as I had left early i had not really been a good boy with the sun screen, so around mid day decided I would have lunch and then head back to the GH for some shade and a cool down. You know it is hot and sunny when the bikes are covered.

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I stopped at Wat Siphoutthabat on the way.

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It was too bright for the view but i liked the sign…

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After a lie down I headed out to That Chomsi, it is on the top of a small hill in the centre of town and was worth a visit on its own. I got as far as the ticket office (I should say there is a fee of about $3NZ at the main sites, it is a bit frustrating, but supposedly the money goes towards maintenance, I hope so.

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Donations

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At the ticket office I ran into Karen, who i briefly talked to at the visa counter last night at the airport. We started chatting and it got too close to closing time for the Vat so I decided to flag it tonight and went for a walk around town and had dinner with Karen, always nice to have company ! We parted company about 9.00 and I went back to the GH to try and make up for last nights lack of sleep.

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You will all be pleased to know that I had a GOOD day, and am loving LP so far !