Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Tigers, Guns and Chiang Mai, Thailand - 12-16 May 2011


Band photo
The Tiger, the Big Cats.  It's not often that you are able to see a Tiger and even rarer to be able meet one and stroke one.  The tigers are now unfortunately endangered and not many remain in the wild due to the spread of humans, hunting etc.  Many are totally against keeping these magnificent creatures in captivity and I agree with them to a certain extent, however, places like Tiger Kingdom who are completely dedicated to raising and maintaining the tiger's health is not a concern for me.  I heard plenty of rumours before arriving at the Kingdom that the animals were drugged so they remained docile.  I do not believe this to be the case and I am firmly of the opinion that these animals were well looked after by their keepers.

Getting up close and personal with a tiger is a great experience, although they are welcoming and not bothered by you patting and stoking them, you know that if they did suddenly have enough, they could turn around and tear you hand off with a swift snap of their jaw.  There are certain rules that you must follow when your within the tiger's compound and should you not follow these, you may be dinner! 

Seeing the fully grown adult tigers playing with the keepers in one of the pens was amazing as they acted like their smaller feline counterparts in every way.  Chasing string, trying to claw things out of the air with their massive paws and jumping into the pool although with a much much larger splash.  Tom paid the extra money to go in with the baby tigers, I wish I did this too but I was being extremely tight on my budget.  If you do find yourself here, definitely go in with the babies and the big cats.  Just seeing them play around was astonishing and extremely, I hate to use this word, cute.

We finished off the day with a few beers whilst watching Man Utd unfortunately win the Premier League which made my Mancunian travel companions extremely happy.  We were the only people in this sports bar and the owner invited us to eat with them as they were celebrating someone's birthday.  They had cooked up lots of little dishes and meat on the barbecue.  Although we had already bought a meal from them, it was very welcome to have some more food.  Things always taste better when they're free and given to you by generous locals.

Back in Ho Chi Minh City, we had wanted to 'blow some shit up', to put it frankly but hadn't managed to as it was actually more expensive than what we had imagined.  The same went with Cambodia, although after visiting the Killing Fields, picking up a gun is not exactly the first thing you want to do.  As this was our last day together we had planned to head to a local museum, however this was closed, so we continued on our contingency plan and made our way to the shooting range where Nicky and I grabbed a couple of guns and shot at some targets for a while.  Unfortunately time goes far too quickly and so did the bullets.  I was actually quite surprised with my accuracy and managed to get most of the shots on target.

It was our last night together.  I had originally met Tom and Nicky way back in Saigon, early April and had travelled with them, bar a couple of side trips through Cambodia, Laos and into Thailand.  We had had fun, experienced anger and frustration and had many many laughs and it will be strange not to have them around anymore.  They had to catch their flight to Darwin from Singapore on 28 May and thus did not have long to get down there.  I, on the other hand hadn't made any firm travel arrangements just yet so could continue ambling along leisurely.  People ask, what's it like to travel alone?  Don't you get lonely?  The answer is simple, you're never alone for long.  You meet people everywhere, sometimes the strangest places and stay with them for a while.  Up until now, I have only been truly alone for no longer than one consecutive week. 

As a celebration of our last night, we headed back the Tiger Kingdom in Town and splashed out on some nice food and enjoyed the bands that were playing, especially the drunk Thai man who was very exuberant with his dancing whilst singing.  A great last night to part ways.

The following day, we hung out for a while the next day waiting for Tom and Nicky's bus which turned up a little late and following some handshakes and manly hugs, I was suddenly alone, the first time in two months.  My feelings were mixed as I would have loved to have travelled on with them but just I wanted to head up North to Pai before heading South towards Bangkok.  I stayed one last night in the Royal Guesthouse as my bus up to Pai was leaving the next day.

Our last meal
Our last ride

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Luang Probang to Chiang Mai, Thailand. 12-16 May


Tom at beginning
The bus journey was in fact a small nightmare,  sleep was near impossible as the padding on my seat is all but disappeared and the metal bar rubbed hard against my butt bones.  The windows were far too high meaning you couldn't just stare out of the window at the countryside passing by.  You could see the stars up in the sky, which was amazing but they get pretty boring after a couple of hours as they don't change.  My MP3 player was running low on battery power and my backup battery charger was safely stowed in my bag underneath.  I feared many hours of uncomfortable, sleepless and boring night's drive ahead.  The bus weaved around the narrow roads in through the hills in North Western Laos and I was probably thankful not to see where we were driving. 


Tom getting comfortable with the locals
 We stopped after a couple of hours and I was able to retrieve my battery charger from my bag.  Brilliant, I had entertainment for the following god knows how many hours this trip is going to take.  Intermittent stops allowed us to stretch our legs, relieve our bladders and get a glimpse of what the outside world looked like.  The bus felt more like a cattle transporter than a vehicle to transport humans.  A couple of hours towards the end of our trip and as the sun began rising above the hills, I managed to secure a couple of seats at the back of the bus which were a little more comfortable, although as I looked down towards my feet, an empty Coke can had attracted a swarm of ants.  I simply accepted it and proceeded to try and sleep for a while.

Next thing I remember was being woken up as our bus pulled off the road and onto a rough piece of ground that acted as a parking lot for the bus station.  We were in Hua Xai, the frontier of Laos and Thailand where we cross into a land that is the only country in South East Asia never to be colonised by a European power.  We had secured a space on a sangthaew that took us into the centre of town and to the border crossing.  An odd affair to say the least.  The border checkpoint was a tiny office on the river edge and looking over the river you could see Thailand in all its glory.  It wasn't long until we had received our exit stamp from Laos and were herded onto a long boat for our one minute ride to the other side.

We landed on the river bank on the other side and followed the crowd to the checkpoint which you could have easily avoided if you wanted to.  There was no order, no line, just fill in your arrival card and shove your passport through the hole to get it stamped.  With the stamps officially welcoming us into Thailand we found a car that would take us to where we wanted to go, a bus to Chiang Mai.  I felt an urge of relief as Thailand's roads were in much better repair than their neighbours and, maybe more importantly, they drive on the correct side of the road, the left side.  The driver dropped us off at a bus office where we booked our tickets onto the next bus leaving for Chiang Mai.  We had to wait a couple of hours but we kept ourselves busy by visiting the 7Eleven across the road to buy some tasty snacks and played Uno until the bus arrived.

I was really looking forward to getting on our first bus ride in Thailand as I had heard travel here was far easier and more comfortable.  I had grown tired of the constant breakdowns, delays and uncomfortable squashed journeys of the last few countries I had travelled.  It was time for some relaxation and comforting.  This however, was not the way things were going to work just yet as the bus had three seats to the right and two to the left, which would be fine if they weren't Asian size seats.  Nicky, Tom and I were allocated three seats on the right hand side of the bus, I was on the aisle seat and could only fit one butt cheek on.  Not good!  I was looking forward to having a few hours sleep before we arrived in Chiang Mai instead I spent the next couple of hours moving from empty seat to empty seat but kept being told to move back to my assigned seat as more passengers kept getting on.  The ticket man, finally came to me an hour before our final destination and told me that I could now go to the back of the bus where there were two empty seats where I could spend the rest of the journey.  I didn't get any sleep though as I had met a group of students who were on their way back to University following some time at home and talked with them for some time about their studies and my trip.

It wasn't long until the bus pulled into the bus station in Chiang Mai and we stepped off the bus, I said farewell to my new Thai friends and negotiated a price for a sangthaew to the Royal Guesthouse which a western girl at the bus station had suggested we stay at.  I'm glad she did get us to stay at this wonderful little guesthouse as the staff were immensely accommodating and the room was comfortable.  Tom wasn't feeling too well once we arrived and decided to stay behind to watch a few episodes of 'An Idiot Abroad' whilst Nicky and I went on a hunt for something to eat.  We ended up in a restaurant just the other side of the river called Tiger Kingdom in town which offered a variety of dishes accompanied by live music which is always a bonus.  We sat there enjoying the music for a while and savouring our fruit shake before heading back to the hotel to get some well needed sleep before going to visit the Tigers the following day.


Saturday, 17 December 2011

Luang Probang, Laos - 9-11 May 2011


I feel under my seat for the lever to recline my chair. Bingo! The chair back reclines and I breathe deeply whilst staring contently outside the window remembering the great times that Vang Vieng delivered. A few days of relaxation, beer, kayaking, beer, trekking, beer, caving, beer and throwing ourselves into the river a number of different ways. This bus is only half full and is really quite pleasant as we have two seats each and have wonderful air conditioning blowing strongly. We're off to Luang Probang, our last destination in Laos before heading over to Thailand.

The bus journey was going extremely well, we stopped once for something to eat and drink after an hour or so on the road. As soon as we got back on the road, I slipped into a sleep only to be woken up again later by the bus stopping and people began getting off. I was disorientated for a while and thought, why are we stopping again so soon. Tom said to me, “We've got to get off, the bus is broken down.”. I seriously thought he was taking the piss as the last few journeys have resulted in many breakdowns. I laughed it off and followed them off the bus, across the road into a small roadside cafĂ©. By the way people were acting I suddenly realised he was in fact telling me the truth. Questions were beginning to be asked, “What's happened? Why are we broken down?” The driver informed us that due to the steep gradients, the bus wasn't able to climb them with the air conditioning on. Tom fired out a simple solution of “Well, why don't you turn the air conditioning off?”. The driver dismissed this and said that he did not know how to and if it was possible. Ridiculous.

No matter, a big bus was hailed down and we squeezed onto there, thankfully they had enough seats for all of us. I believe they concocted this story about breaking down as they didn't want to take a half full bus to Luang Probang. It really didn't bother me though as it's Laos, there's nothing to worry about in Laos. This new bus, although air-conditioned and comfortable enough, was a rougher ride as we sat on the top deck well above the road. Underneath us was the driver and the storage room for luggage. The twists and turns through the mountains had us continually swaying from side to side and hanging on. The views, however, were breathtaking.

Finally we arrived in Luang Probang early evening and headed to the Spicy Laos hostel. As today is my birthday, strange to have a birthday and spending most of it on a bus, we headed out for a meal and a few drinks. Luang Probang's famous night market was in full swing by the time we got down town on our way to find a restaurant. What a fantastic little market it is too, it takes you around 10 minutes to get through walking at a steady pace and dodging hanging objects.

Tom disappeared following our meal for a while only to return with a present for my from them. It was an 'In the tubing, Vang Vieng' t-shirt. Brilliantly ironic. I had been commenting on how I wouldn't get one of these because everyone seems to pick one up on their way through Laos but now I had one and I was determined to wear it. We headed back to the hostel, changed into my new t-shirt and then headed to the bowling alley, which is a popular hangout for travellers as it's one of the only places open and selling drink until late.

The following morning I wake following one of the worst night's sleep I have had since embarking on my trip. The dorm room was a sweat room. The two fans that rotated on the ceiling did not even touch us. A layer of thick sweat enveloped my entire body and my thoughts went back to Mongolia in an effort to cool down. A well needed shower was required, carried out and I headed downstairs for some breakfast.

Night Market, Luang Probang
Nicky was already down there, sitting outside on one of the stone stools taking with another guy. I walked up to them and introduced myself to the new person sitting at the table. “How are you? I'm Andy.”. “I'm Mike, nice to....” He paused and inquisitively stared into my eyes. It didn't bother me as I was doing the same thing as my brain was processing memories from long ago into the forefront of my mind. “I know you!” Mike said. “And I know you!” I returned confirming our previous acquaintance. It was Mike Curtis, a guy that I had been at school with for many years, although he was in the year above us, we used to hang out. I had not seen him in many many years, not since we left school. What a small world it certainly is. I'm the other side of the world in Laos and I meet an old friend.

Following the Meeting Mike, we headed back to the swimming pool we had found the previous day for a nice refreshing swim. As it had rained, the road leading towards the swimming pool was muddy and my flip flops were continuously getting stuck in the mud. We got there though, finally getting to a swimming pool, something that I had wanted to jump in for a very long time and I was not disappointed. Jumping into the cool water of the pool and floating around was a magnificent relief and as they say, good things come to those that wait! It wasn't fantastic catching up with Mike and finding out that he was now a stand up comedian, something I definitely would not have pictured many years ago.

Luang Probang is a very beautiful city in the North West of Laos and kind of reminds me a little like Hoi An in Vietnam. It's relaxed, plenty of restaurants, night market full of wonderful things and food markets with all kinds of delicious food to choose from. It's a shame that we're leaving so soon but Nicky and Tom had to get a move on as their flight from Singapore to Darwin was rapidly approaching and we thought it was just time to move on and into Thailand, a land full of promise and punctuality. So we had our final meal in Luang Probang with Mike and grabbed a bus to Hua Xia, the border town between the two countries. There is an option to take a boat up the Mekong to the border crossing, but we weighed up our options, deliberated over cost and time factors and came to the conclusion that we would just hop on the night bus. We finished our meal and headed briskly back to the hostel and as soon as we got there the sangthaew was already there to pick us up... early!


Saturday, 10 December 2011

Party in Amazing Vang Vieng, Laos - 5-9 May 2011


Again, we're in a rush and finding it hard to pay up our bill and leave the guesthouse as the lady really didn't care too much about getting money from us. Seriously, I wonder whether they actually want money from us or they just like to have us around! We managed to pay up and ran across the road with our bags just as a bus came hurtling towards us. Our hands all sprung up in an exaggerated manner pleading the bus driver to stop and pick us up. The driver slammed his brakes on and the bus came to a stop a couple hundred metres up the road. We ran up and were greeted by the assistant who grabbed our bags and put them underneath, took our money and we went to find a seat only to be confronted by another fantastic site. A motorcycle in the isle at the back. I mean, how did they get it on the bus?

The trip around the winding roads back towards the main highway that runs North-South through Laos was exhilarating and really required strong hands to hold onto the seat in front or you'd end up lying in the isle. A few times my arse came away from the seat as I plummeted towards the seat if front because the driver had to slam the brakes on to avoid an oncoming car on our side of the road, albeit the wrong side of the road.

The bus journey to Vientiane was uneventful and we got there as expected around 5 hours later. We were still questioning whether to stay in the country's capital city or not as we hadn't heard much about it and people advised us to skip it and spend longer in another place instead. We got to the bus station and were not impressed by being back in a big city after a few weeks exploring the small towns of Southern Laos and Northern Cambodia. We were also dismayed by the barrage of touts that tried to get us in their tuk tuks. Something we had previously loved Laos for not having but with every city you get this and have to expect it. Our first port of call was to have something to eat and then decide what we were going to do.

The tuk tuk weaved through the metropolitan traffic that lined the streets as we headed to the bus station the opposite side of the town to get a bus on to Vang Vieng. Yes, we had decided to skip this city and head further North to the paradise that is Vang Vieng, a place that I had heard so much about from fellow travellers. As we arrived at the bus station, we found the bus that was due to leave for Vang Vieng in the next hour which should take only 3-4 hours to get to VangVieng.


From our Hotel
Needless to say the journey was ever so slightly longer than that by another 2-3 hours taking us around 6 hours to travel the road to Vang Vieng. Nicky had attracted a rather interesting local who sat next to him and kept stealing one earphone from his ears to listen to his music. Personal space was not his strong point as there were a number of other foreigners on the bus, one of which was sitting in front of him and he decided that it would be a good idea to keep hitting him on the arm and laughing. This guy spoke very good English but I think he must have had some developmental disorder. His attitude made the journey a lot longer and harder to deal with. of course we had to stop along the way and pack the isle with dozens of boxes full of bleach. Nicky, Tom and I just spent the time playing a word game which must have been hilarious to listen to as an outsider.

When we finally arrived on a bit of waste land in Vang Vieng, we were extremely relieved and went on the hunt for a place to stay. It was dark by this point and the partying in the town had already begun as we walked past the bucket bars that sold buckets of alcohol for a minimal price. We found a place to stay and negotiated a price for a triple room with fans and settled in for a night of relaxation watching several episodes of How I Met Your Mother before exploring what the place had to offer the following day.

Vang Vieng, an adult playroom... Drinks and Sings!
Vang Vieng has certainly experienced a massive influx of tourism in recent years, especially with younger travellers who are ready for a party as this is the party capital of Laos which generally doesn't have nightlife. I have heard people talk about this place ever since I entered South East Asia and something called Tubing. I was excited to finally experience this place and it did not disappoint. As Tom wasn't feeling all that well, Nicky and I headed up stream in a tuk-tuk to where there were a congregation of several riverside bars offering free shots and selling other beer and spirits to the literally crazy tourists there. With the bars are slides and zip lines going into the river from crazy heights. Only a few weeks previously there had been a tourist die here as he plummeted into shallow waters and landed on the rocky river bed causing sections to be blocked off. Safety is not of great concern here, only having fun and enjoying the Laos countryside with a drink or too. Nicky and I drank up our free drinks that entice people into the bars to buy more and used the zip line in the first bar a couple of times. I'm not going to lie to you, I was a little scared as the bamboo ladder and platform tied together rather precariously swayed as you climbed up. Grabbing on hard to the bar and pushing yourself off the edge for the plunge into the cool waters of the river is quite an experience. We finished up there and swam further down the river to the next bars. Many people hire tubes, tractor inner-tubes, to float down the river, but you can swim too. As you swim you become truly aware of how shallow the water can be when your knees suddenly crash against rock and you can stand up with only your knees in water.

Our last bar for the day was relatively quiet and had mud volleyball which was incredibly funny and a slide. We finished off chatting and drinking with some other travellers until the night came with a small thunder storm. One of the guys that worked at the bar took the group of us back across the river as he had a torch and there were absolutely no lights. The bamboo bridge swayed and I became constantly aware of holes in the bridge that plummeted into the dark fast moving river below. On the other side of the bridge was a dark field filled with brambles on the ground and as we had no footwear, it was intermittently painful!

Nicky climbing down from the cave exit
The following day we had booked on a Kayaking trip up the river with a small trek through the jungle to visit a few caves. Unfortunately Tom was still feeling unwell so couldn't come along. Nicky and I climbed aboard the sangthaew with the kayaks on the roof and we headed upstream for about twenty minutes before pulling off the road to our starting positions. The guide and driver pulled the kayaks off the roof and we helped them carry them down to the water edge. Our valuables got put into a waterproof bag and we were given a two litre bottle of drinking water. I know I keep talking about it but the landscape around here is absolutely stunning and being on the quiet river in the middle of mountains and jungle was wonderful and an experience I didn't want to end.

After kayaking for a while, we moored on a small opening on the shore where the guide helped us get the kayaks out of the river. He then brought out a plastic bag with food and hung it on a tree before leading us into the jungle for our first cave. OK, so my experience in the Konglor Cave didn't teach me a lesson in appropriate footwear as I was again in flip flops. Our guide too was in flip flops but obviously being a professional didn't seem to have the same issues that I was having slipping all over the place, tripping on rocks and loosing them every now and again between crevasses.

An opening amongst the trees
The humidity in the jungle was immense and I was no longer dripping sweat, I was literally pouring. The climb would have certainly be a lot easier with good boots on. I wouldn't have to worry too much about the insects that roam the tracks either. We reached the cave and the huge opening the led deep into the cave was precariously slippery. Despite taking utmost care Nicky and I both had our legs sweep out from under us which sent us plummeting only to be caught by the guide.

Now with a muddy backside, we continue to go deeper into the cave and the guide handed us torches as the sunlight ceased to shine. We had to wade through the ice cold water that had collected in the cave. During wet season this cave is apparently filled with water and impassable unless you can swim for a long while in cold, dark water. We climbed through to the other side, being careful of spiders that linger in the cracks of rocks and once again found sunlight again.

Our guide taking us through the party zone!
Following a fantastic meal cooked by our guide eaten off a palm leaf and a laze in the river, we were back rowing down stream towards Vang Vieng stopping at an organic farm for a brief tour and a cup of tea on the way. We streamed through the party section and laughed and jested with the people swimming and floating in the river. Our last stop for the day was another cave which was a far more adventurous expedition. Having to balance along a wall, jump into a six foot ditch which would again be filled with water d it it were wet season and squeeze through gaps that no western man should be able to do. This cave however was amazing as the quartz in the rocks glittered when the torch light hit it. Unfortunately there are no photos of this as it was, predictably, dark inside and my camera does not 'do' dark.

The cave entrance!
We squeezed and contorted our bodies through the other side of the cave where we had to trek back through thick undergrowth to the bar where we had moored up. At the bar, Nicky and I had began talking with a couple of girls who were enjoying one of the quieter bars on the river with a drink. They were also on a Kayaking trip and we cracked open a couple of beers and sat there talking for a while. Unbelievably upon further questioning, these girls turned out to be from Norwich and were on there summer holidays before heading back to the UK and to university. It's always strange when you meet someone from your home town when your from a relatively small city like Norwich as there's always a chance that you will know them and a huge chance that you have mutual friends.

Peaceful river
The girls, Nicky and I decided that it would be nice to join forces on our last stint down stream to our final point back in Vang Vieng's bustling hub where all the bars play Family Guy or Friends from dawn till late. Half way down the river however, the guides had grown tired as the girls had obviously drunk a little too much and their coordination proved problematic with gaining any sort of meaningful race, so they stopped us and asked Nicky and one girl to swap kayaks. The race begun and I was the lucky one as my girl wasn't as impaired as Nicky's so we easily won our short races. My joy at our success was soon overshadowed as the girl sitting in the front of my kayak twisted and wriggled a bit too far forcing our kayak to capsize and sending us and all of my and Nicky's processions into the river. I surfaced from the thankfully shallow waters, regained my perspective and quickly gather as many of our things as possible before they headed off downstream. Thankfully we had put the majority of our things into a waterproof bag so the only thing that was lost were Nicky's 'genuiiine' Ray Ban sun glasses he purchased from a very honest salesperson in Siem Reap for a couple dollars, bargain! We climbed back in and were soon at the end of our trip. A fantastic kayak trip through the absolutely awesome surroundings of Vang Vieng that I never wanted to end.

Admiration of the view
Our third day was spent back down at the bars doing the 'tubing' thing (without a tube). My second time on the zip line brought with it a colonic irrigation as I landed painfully arse first. Tom landed on his chest winding himself. At the next bar I went on the slide and landed face first and I felt as though I may have broken my nose. With these painful moments in mind, I called it a day on the swings, slides and zip lines that plunge from the bars into the water. This was unfortunately our last day in the magnificent Vang Vieng. A place with such natural beauty and an extremely fun place to be. Although I love the place, I am concerned for Laos as I do not want it to end up like surrounding Thailand and Vietnam where the natural beauties and people become ruined by tourism and PUTs (Pissed up Twats, a term you'll here more from me soon!).

Saturday, 3 December 2011

A Journey under the Earth, Konglor Cave, Ba Na Hin, Laos - 2-4 May 2011


With sweat dripping down my back, I look down into the ditch out the back of the guesthouse with complete disappointment. According to the Lonely Planet this ditch should, in fact, be a wonderful refreshing swimming pool. OK, so obviously they worked a little too hard on digging the hole, they had to take a breather for a couple of years before finishing it off. What else does this place have to offer, TV? Yes, but no channels which isn't good as Tom and Nicky want to watch the Man Utd match. Air con? No just fans, which isn't too much of an issue but still a negative point. They did however, have beds and showers. We were torn whether to stay or not. We had walked a fair way out of the central part of the small town of Ba Na Hin to find this oasis but in the end we decided not to stay and find somewhere closer to town. We did have to wait whilst Tom finished his shower though and we left extremely swiftly.

We did find a nice room in a hotel closer to the centre with a double bed, a single bed, a TV and wonderful air conditioning. It was a fairly new hotel as many of the accommodation in Ba Na Hin is as it begins to experience the tourist boom with travellers using the town as a base camp for the Konglor Cave. Finally, we had arrived at our destination albeit one day late. The night spent in Vieng Kham, I should say the few hours we spent there consisted of a cramp nights sleep trying not to fall of the bed that all three of us shared and finally getting the bus straight to Ba Na Hin in the morning.

Beautiful scenery
The names of places here are extremely confusing as they have two or three names for the same place so with that and the long bus journey, I never really knew where we were! Ba Na Hin is around 50km away from the Konglor Cave and our plan was to either hire out motorcycles or take a Sangthaew but for now, all we wanted to do is get something to eat, drink and relax. The town of Ba Na Hin has 3,000 people living in and around it, many of them a foreigners involved in building a damn. As the night falls over the town, darkness spreads as street lights are minimal if not absent. Torches are a very good idea for a walk into the central part of the village as pot holes and ditches line the road. It's very quiet here and you only see a handful of people wondering around.

On our walk into town accompanied by the hotel's dog who liked to follow us wherever we went, we dropped into the tourist information chalet which was run by a eccentric 30 year old Laos guy who was full of enthusiasm for his surrounding countryside. We ended up organising motorcycles for our trip to the caves the following day. He also told us about the bus onwards to Vientiane.

We picked up our motorcycles early the following day and our 50km trip to the Konglor Caves had begun, albeit on the road on the wrong side of the road for several hundred metres. That reminded me when my friends and I hired a car in Corfu and we pulled out onto the main road between Kavos and Corfu Town only to be confronted by a lorry coming at us on our side of the road. I thought why is he on the wrong side of the..... oh no... I'm on the wrong side of the road!!! It's alright though as I think this is the last country that drives on the wrong side of the road.

The journey to the cave was absolutely stunning. Travelling through the green fields, hills and little villages where locals stopped you with a rope across the road to offer you a drink for a small donation. They were absolutely fantastic and generous people who didn't speak English but were full of smiles and laughter. The shot that I drank was extremely potent and I was concerned that it was pure gasoline and my vision would disappear whilst negotiating pot holes on the dusty road.

It took us around an hour to travel the 50km to the cave and we arrived at the entrance to the park where we had to stop at the barrier to pay the entrance fee to the national park area. We parked our bikes up and found the hut where all the guides were hanging out, drinking, talking and smoking. We negotiated a price for a boat trip through the cave and were handed life jackets. The guide got up and led us down to the cave entrance.

Entrance to the Cave
We climbed in the boat and I was struck by the darkness that enveloped inside the cave as the guide pulled the throttle on the engine and we headed into the unknown. The cave and is actually part of the Hin Phuo river that runs through 7.5km underground. The Laos lady on the bus from Pakse warned us not to go in there alone as some ignorant tourists have in recent months and have either died or had to be rescued by the locals. It is advisable that you wear sturdy waterproof footwear and bring a good torch, neither of which I had.  As we travelled deeper into the cave, the only light that shone was that of the guides as he searched from side to side, up and down for rock outcrops that stick up through the water. These guides are truly amazing and they really do know this cave like the back of their hands.

Our guide dragging the boat through shallow waters
At several points along the cave, we had to get out of the boat as the water level was too low to carry us over the river bed. Our first stop required us to get out and follow a pathway up a stony bank. As I climbed from the boat I had my first experience of how fast the river flows and my flip flop on my left foot got taken for a ride down the river making me scramble like a mad man to catch it. The pathway through over the rock outcrop had been lit with coloured lights and was quite beautiful until the lights unexpectedly went out. Was this part of the tour or were we truly in the midst of a power cut without a torch? There are not very many places where you can experience true darkness, as there's always light around whether it's the standby light on the TV or the stars in the sky. It's quite harrowing, your mind completely awakens and your pupils expand striving to gain orientation of your surroundings. We stood still, nervously laughing and questioning whether the lights would come back on again. My hand clenched onto the rope that marked the pathway and a wearily place one foot in front of the other making slow progress. We had no guide with us as he was currently in the water dragging the boat over the shallow water.

Thankfully the lights lit up again and our eyes readjusted. A sigh of relief was heard from all of us as we continued on the path back down to the other side of the rock to rejoin our guide and head off again on our trip through the middle of the mountain. I'm glad the lights went off as it gave us the experience of being in true darkness and wonder what it would feel like to be lost in this mammoth cave. The water is cool and the subtle sound of dripping water can be heard from above. At times, the cave opened up into huge chambers which were truly awe inspiring, there are no words to describe the beauty of this natural wonder that sits in the isolated south of Laos.

Up ahead, the cave lightens gradually and suddenly we're out in the open water speeding through the jungle that surrounds the river. My hands quickly search my head for sunglasses as my pupils shrink causing slight painful readjustment. The boat was slowly grounded on the banks of the river where we got out for a short while for a drink in a Laos tourist trap before we headed back through the cave to our starting point.

We finished our trip off by have a swim in the small lake that accumulates at the entrance to the cave. Wonderfully refreshing swim, however, dark clouds began forming above our heads and it wasn't long before several load cracks of thunder were heard accompanied by drips of rain. It was time for us to take refuge under the trees whilst a short downpour took hold. Once the rain had stopped we climbed back on our bikes and began our trip back to Ba Na Hin. Our stomachs were grumbling so we stopped at the first restaurant we found and it was good timing as the storm above awakened yet again and this time heavy rain battered the countryside.

The restaurant was in a small guesthouse which was run by a very sweet and accommodating family who welcomed us in with a shake of the hand. Their daughter had her play area in the corner with toys spread across the floor. She was so happy to see us and kept showing us her toys and drawings. To feel so welcome in somebody's house is a truly fantastic experience and will be memories that will not be forgotten. We got back on the road again and sped off along the road back to Ba Na Hin for an evening of food, fruitshakes and shithead although the intermittent storm kept inducing power outages. The journey from Pakse to here was definitely worth it!

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Pakse to Ba Na Hin.... A journey from hell, Laos - 1 May 2011


It's four in the morning and Tom, Nicky and I are sitting on a stone table outside a closed shop, tired and irritated by the swarm of mosquitos flying around us waiting for their chance to sink their malaria and dengue fever ridden suckers into our skin to feed on our blood. I was forced to change into my long trousers and a shirt as they began bite. It wasn't supposed to have turned out like this. We should have been comfortable in bed now following a couple of ice cold beers not wondering around the small lifeless town of Ba Na Hin in an effort to find somewhere to sleep for the night.

I thought back to the previous morning in Pakse. We hadn't bought our tickets as the elderly guesthouse owner told us that a bus leaves every hour and not to worry. Our next destination is the Seven Kilometre Konglor cave in Tham Kong Lo however, there is not a direct bus there. The night before last, the owner had sprawled a map out and with his index figure indicated our required route. He informed us that we will need to get on a bus bound for Vientianne and ask to get off at Ba Na Hin where we could catch a connecting bus to Tham Kon Lo. Sounds easy!

We arrived at the bus station just as a bus for Vientianne was about to leave. Our tuk-tuk driver leapt off his seat, grabbed our bags and ushered us towards the ticket counter where he helped us buy bus tickets. Before we knew it, our bags were being hoisted onto the roof of the bus and secured down underneath some tarpaulin with some rope and we were pushed aboard the bus. How's that for Laos efficiency I thought to myself.

Time to wait...
The bus was predictably full and the aisle was nearly full with passengers. My first thought was a memory of that extremely uncomfortable journey between Siem Reap and Banlung the previous week. As soon as they saw us inside the bus, the Lao passengers looked at us and smiled whilst excitedly remarking on the foreigners to the person sitting next to them. Unlike the bus journey in Cambodia, I felt hugely welcomed and smiled back whilst looking for a place to sit in the aisle. As we prepared to perch on some boxes, three people stood up and ordered us to sit down in their seats. I felt truly humbled by their hospitality. The day was going extremely smoothly and as the bus crawled out of the bus station I said to myself "I love Laos".



That's not a good sign....
The lush green hills and the Mekong river that act as a natural border between Laos and Thailand rolled past the window. The sun was beating down rather heavily as the small windows let just enough air in to cool the bus down. We had been travelling for an hour or without hitch until suddenly… BANG, CLATTER-CLATTER-CLATTER… The bus slowed to a stop on the side of the road. People looked around questioning their friends as to what had happened and slowly people stood up and got off the bus.


Out from the back of the bus was a streak of oil stretching back in a straight line for a couple hundred metres. The driver and his assistant crawled underneath the back of the bus. The dangling driveshaft had ripped itself free from a universal joint which lays in pieces on the ground. Quite a serious mechanical failure. Never the less, the driver was under there tinkering away in an effort to fix it. I don't know why he didn't just give up and join his passengers who were all sitting on the verge as it was pretty obvious that it was unrepairable.


The sun was particularly hot as we sat there on the verge whilst the driver and his right hand man tinkered beneath the bus. We had made friends with a Japanese business man who was on a short break from his dealings in Vietnam. After an hour, our throats became too dry and in desperate need of an ice cool refreshing drink so we walked up the road towards a shack that looked as though it was selling drinks. It was indeed a drink selling shack with a wonderful family running it. The family sat around a table eating their lunch. I felt as though we were intruding, however, as soon as we walked in their eyes widened and big smiles spread across their faces. They couldn't speak English and didn’t need to as they jumped up to greet us, shake our hands and began to laugh and joke with us. It's highly likely that they don't see many foreigners cross their path in such a remote location. Unfortunately the drinks weren't exactly ice cold but what more could you expect from a roadside shack in the middle of nowhere. We said our goodbyes to the family and thanked them for the drinks and made our way back swiftly to the bus where the driver and his assistant had finally pulled themselves from underneath the bus.

Transferring goods
Two hours had nearly passed by when another bus arrived and pulled up in front of ours. The bus driver climbed out and had some hushed words with ours whilst inspecting the damaged engine. Suddenly, the men climbed upon the roof and began taking bags down and transferring them onto the other bus. Suddenly the other bus sprung into life and we thought it was driving off with our bags on the roof but instead of moving forward it reversed back and pulled up very closely besides our stranded bus where there was one motorcycle left on the roof. Four men hopped aboard the roofs of the busses and began moving the bike carefully across the gap onto the roof of the new bus. A sight which was interesting indeed.

A squeeze, but look at all those smiles!
We looked inside the working bus and were greeted by an overloaded bus full of passengers smiles. To this day, I have absolutely no idea how we did it but we managed to squeeze two bus loads of people on board one bus. If this happened in Cambodia or Vietnam, I would have been angry but because the Laos people are so friendly and genuine, I really didn't care and enjoyed the bilingual banter between our fellow passengers. As we stood in the middle of the isle whilst things were being sorted out, a lady pinched our bums and laughed. We were again presented with Laos' excellent hospitality when two men gave their seats up for us, although it was a tight squeeze, two seats for three people! The bus sprung into life and we were off again. I do look back and wonder what happened to the stranded bus and its driver and assistant. Are they still there? Did they miraculously fix the bus somehow?

We travelled for what must have been an hour until we pulled into the compound of a small warehouse where we were all asked to get off. What happened next was beyond belief, they proceeded to load the bus with eighty big sacks of rice. Two sacks to each footwell and hell knows how many in the aisle. I couldn't believe how much one bus could hold. After waiting for nearly another hour in the scorching sun unable to sit down as there were far too many ants and flies around, we were finally allowed to crawl back on the bus and over the sacks of rice to find our seats again. Even though we had been on the road for nearly 5 hours, we hadn't made much progress whatsoever.

Getting bored now....
The hours passed by and it was now late afternoon and we had just pulled into the bus station in Savanakhet, only half way to Ba Na Hin. Here we stopped for a further hour, where most people on the bus got off. Gave us some time to have an ice cream and stock up on some more drink an defeat the urge to abandon ship and get the next bus into Thailand which was leaving in just a few minutes. Despite the temptation, we climbed back on the bus, over the sacks of rice towards the back of the bus and prepared for the second half of the journey.



Shortly after departing the bus station the bus turned into a small side street and the driver asked us to get off, which we diligently did and proceeded to stand on the gravel track whilst the bus drove inside a compound with heavy gates and high walls. To us in certainly looked like a drug deal going down as more bags were hoisted on top of the bus. After 30 minutes, we were off again and the sun had dipped below the horizon spreading darkness and lights began flickering on the cars and buses.

The bus journey didn't seem to be ending, hours passed by and we stopped several times, once at this big bus station for another hour whilst we waited for somebody or something. I went to a food stall and began laughing with the girl as I began to haggle with her for some grapes. Despite the journey's length, I still love Laos and its people. We were beginning to consider our options at this bus stop as it was now heading into early morning and we still had a couple of hours to go until we reached Ba Na Hin and knowing that it was a very small town sitting on a junction of two main roads and finding somewhere to sleep would be difficult at the vest of times let alone in the middle of the night. Should we continue on our way or cut our loses and sleep in the questionable motel in this station and get another bus in the morning? Needless to say our procrastination was without results and we were again on our way again.

After a few more hours on the road, some strange conversations with the Laos lady in front of me and keeping an eye out for spiders that periodically crawled quickly over our feet, the bus stopped and the driver's assistant approached us and told us to get off. It was just after 4am and we had finally made it to Ba Na Hin. As soon as we stepped off the bus our bags were there in front of us and the bus drove off into the distance onwards to it's final destination of Vientianne.

Ba Na Hin was at this moment in time the epitome of a ghost town at this time of night, no life apart from the odd motorcycle passing by. Nicky ran off to scout the area and to see if he could find a guesthouse. He did but the man, who we took as security, told us no room. We found the only other guesthouse in the town back on the main road but no one was around to get a room. We sat there for a while in the dark with mosquitos feasting off us and tried again. Success. We finally rouse a lady who was able to give us one room for the remainder of the night. One double room for the rest of the night. Nicky said he didn't mind sleeping on the floor in my sleeping bag whilst Tom and I shared the bed. This changed when we saw insects crawling over the floors which ultimately forced all three of us in one double bed. Thank god there was a shower and wonderful air conditioning unit to refresh us and keep us cool...