Saturday, 22 October 2011

Let's get out of here! To Laos! - 26 April 2011

It's time for us to leave Cambodia and head into the ninth country of Andy's Epic Voyage.  Laos had been a fascination and a country that was extremely appealing due to my lack of knowledge of the country.  Our minibus was due to leave at 8am, it was now 7.30 and we're trying to pay our bill for the food and drink we had consumed over the past day and for some reason the man whom classed himself as the manager couldn't take our money and insisted until his mother was back.  Once she had arrived around 8am she retrieved her little notebook and scraps of paper where she had noted all the things we had. It soon transpired that she had no idea who had what and had plucked a figure out of the air.  The figures was obviously wrong, but thankfully we had noted our own consumption down ever since they refused to take our cash when we arrived.  Tom, Nicky and I ended up going through our own accounts and telling the lady how much we each owed to her, she wasn't too fussed and I think quite pleased that we took it upon ourselves.  My bill actually came to more so whether we did the right thing by doing the calculations ourselves is debatable.

The previous evening we sat in the restaurant having a drink and eating a meal with two girls that I previously met in Hué on the DMZ tour.  As the sun disappeared briskly behind the trees on the opposite side of the lake a swarm of flying insects invaded. We walked to find an internet café that night and I had never seen so many insects flying around.  Following our previous horrid journey to Banlung, we wanted to have a more comfortable trip into Laos so we decided to go with our hotel who had assured us that his minibus is private and he makes sure that there is only one person to one seat. We interrogated him for a while repeating the question in several different forms to be absolutely comfortable that we weren't going to be squashed up once again.

After we had paid the owner of the hotel our due debts, we walked towards the minibus that had been waiting for us for a few minutes.  We passed our bags to the driver who placed them on the passenger seat next to him in the front, shook the manager's hand goodbye and climbed aboard. “No, no!” the driver said pointing at the seats.  “Four per seat. One, two, three, four... One, two, three, four...”.  I honestly can not believe this situation.  Just ten hours ago we sat with the manager who specifically stated that there will be one seat to every person and now they are trying to squeeze four of us onto three seats.  I exploded.  Usually I am an easy going person but I had reached the end of my tether with these lying Cambodians that are taking our money and lying to our faces.  I sat on the back row, stuck in by the person in front who had pulled down the fold up chair.

“Get me him!” I pointed at the manager who walked over sheepishly knowing full well why I was angry.  “My friend, you lied to us.  You told us that each person would have one seat.  One person, one seat.  What do you see here?  How many seats?   One, two, three.  How many people?  One, two, three, four!”
“It's usual in Cambodia.”  He justified his position.
“Usual in Cambodia?!  Usually for Cambodians?  We're westerners, we're much much bigger than you! Anyway, that doesn't matter to me.  It's that you looked us in the eyes and lied to us!  We paid extra for this bus as we trusted you!”  With that I knew I wasn't going to get anywhere arguing with him and the only pathetic insult I could muster up was to retrieve the business card he had given us from my wallet and tear it up into little pieces and throwing it at him.

I sat back as the door closed and stared blankly out of the window at the manager who seemed non phased by my insult.  He didn't need to worry, as do any of these people that lie to you.  They know you don't have a leg to stand on and will be out of there city soon enough and won't be able to do anything.  The only thing we can do is give a bad review on Trip Advisor.

The bus drove out of the hotel and into the city centre where we picked up a couple of locals who were transporting the goods free of charge thanks to us who had paid for the petrol and their meals for the next month.  The bus left the track, over a little bit of grass and before we knew it we were travelling along the runway of the local airport.  Obviously this doesn't get used much if locals can just drive across it freely. At certain times on this trip I just wish I wasn't on a mission to complete this trip by land and sea only, however, I'm sure I will look back at these moments with fond memories.  The journey to Stung Treng, where we would be changing buses again took us back along the track we came out on.  Nicky lightened my mood when he asked me to listen to a song that was quite fitting for our last few days in Cambodia, It's a Holiday in Cambodia by the punk band Dead Kennedys.

It's a holiday in Cambodia,
It's tough kid but it's life...

...Well you'll work harder
With a gun in your back
For a bowl of rice a day
Slave for soldiers
Till you starve
Then your head is skewered on a stake...

We pulled up to a restaurant in Stung Treng where we were to transfer to another minibus that would take us up the highway to the border with Laos.  A couple of people on our minibus immediately boarded another bus that was taking them South. Us, on the other hand had to wait for an hour for our bus but luckily the restaurant was on hand to provide us slightly overcharged food and drink for the temporarily stranded tourists.  I had my staple fried rice with chicken and a refreshing Coca-Cola and sat back to enjoy our freedom dreaming of the wonderful Laos that lies an hour up the road.

As our departure time neared, we asked the lady if we could pay for our meals.  She came over, told us what we each owed and we diligently handed over the de facto currency of US dollars.   “I can give you change in Laos Kip?”  The lady offered.
“What is the exchange rate?”  We enquired.
“6500 Kip to Dollar.”   She answered.
“Oh, that's not a lot.  No thank you, we'll take our change in Dollars.”  We confirmed.
“No, I give you Kip. 6500 to a dollar.”  She insisted.
“No thank you.  Dollars will be fine.  Thank you.”

This exchange went on for a long while.  My newly relaxed state had taken a battering again and my agitation increased boiling my blood to explosion point.  I tried to keep calm.  Took a deep breath and remembered a valuable lesson I had been taught whilst teaching children that raising your voice does absolutely nothing to resolve a difficult situation.  So I reasoned with her.   “I'll give you an ultimatum, you can either give us our change in dollars as per our agreement or you can give us our change in Laos Kip at a rate of 8,000 to a dollar.”  I offered.
“But this is my business I cannot do that, I need to make money.”  she retorted.
“No, our business with you is the food we've eaten, nothing more.  We paid in dollars and we expect our change in dollars.  If you gave us a good exchange rate then I'd happily get my change in Kip but you're not.  So please, my dollars.”  Conversation ended.

Eventually she muttered to her son under her breath obviously complaining about us and he disappeared off on his motorcycle to get us the change in dollars.  That of course didn't stop her trying to push the Kip on us.  She continued right up to the moment the money was back in our hands.  Our minibus pulled up outside and we were ordered aboard.   The van was packed up with goods again and we were squeezed on.  I had reached tipping point and as we left the restaurant Nicky, Tom and I raised our middle fingers and wrote it off.  It wasn't worth anymore anger as we would soon enough be walking across that border into Laos.

It didn't take us long to reach the border as the roads were all newly sealed and comfortable.  As we stopped, the driver opened the door for us to get out, unloaded our bags and drove off back towards Stung Treng.  The border was quiet, we were the only group of people crossing through.  There was a line of drink and snack stalls leading up to the checkpoint.  We were shown to some chairs and table beyond the stalls where we were handed the immigration forms to fill out.  A man who was on our bus took our passports, documents and visa fees including a 'compulsory' health check charge and got them processed whilst we hung around with an overpriced drink in our hands.  He returned around twenty minutes later and handed back our passports with instructions to walk through and meet our new driver on the other side.

It must have been the most relaxed border crossing I had ever had the privilege to cross through.  A man merely glanced at our passports and the health check booth which we had paid for was left empty.  Obviously the man had pocketed that extra dollar we paid for it.  I was in Laos. 

Monday, 17 October 2011

A long journey for a lake, Banlung, 24-25 April 2011

It's dark, the air rushing past my head is warm and full of flying insects. I'm wearing my sunglasses to protect my eyes, but it means that I can't see a thing. Between the driver and I is Nicky. All three of us are squeezed on this tiny 125cc motorcycle and Tom is riding next to us with our bags. The road is nicely paved, leads out from the centre of Banlung and eventually reaches the Vietnamese border. Of course we are not going that far. Nicky had booked us some beds in an eco-lodge a couple of kilometres out of Banlung. The street lights disappeared and the stars brightened in the sky above.

The town centre had long disappeared and we were now cruising in silence. The motorcycle lights struggled to illuminate the road ahead. Tom's motorcycle pulled off the road in front of us onto a gravel driveway entrance and we pulled up beside them. “Is this it?” The gate was closed. Initially I thought the motorcycle drivers were trying to fool us by bringing us to a closed place so they could take us to their alternative hotel instead. We hoped off the motorcycles and inspected closer. The Cambodian riders warned us to be careful as it was dark, so I retrieved my wind up torch from my bag and lighted the way. There was a sign on the gate to prove that we were in the right place but having looked through the gate, we saw no lights nor life.

The three of us stood there for a moment in disbelief.  The motorcycle engines had been cut off and darkness enveloped around us as the symphony of crickets and insects buzzing and clicking filled the air.  How could this journey become any more aggravating!?  Nicky had booked this place the previous day on the internet and had been assured that they had a 24 hour reception.  By the looks of it, the reception hadn't been open for a long time.  Our shouts and pleads to open up went unheard.  Nicky had enough and grabbed my wind up torch and climbed over the fence to the disbelief of the motorcycle riders who warned him to be careful of animals.  Tom and I stood watching through the gate as the light from the torch grew dim and disappeared.  Nicky was on his own.  

The minutes passed slowly by as we waited for Nicky's return.  We held on to a hope that the day's events may just turn around into a positive and the gates would open to a paradise beyond.  In the distance an intermittent whirring sound could be heard, I looked through the gate and could see a white light flickering and growing stronger as it got closer.  It was Nicky winding the torch to keep it powered.  He was alone and a little bit angry.  I looked over at Tom in anticipation of a barrage of Fs but there was only hushed remarks, however, I could tell that internally he was visualising BBTs (Baby Bashing Trees).  We had to get out of there before someone got hurt, before the anger boiled up and started spilling over the edges of his self control.  

Banlung - Main Street
Luckily, the motorcycle riders knew of a perfect hotel that we could stay in for the night so Nicky, Tom and I hopped back on the bikes and headed back towards Banlung.  The motorcycle with Tom on it had disappeared behind us.  I was a little concerned not for his safety, but for the motorcycle rider's.  Nicky and I waited for him at the Pink Hotel for around five minutes uncertain of their fate.  We were shown a room, quite a long room with two double beds and a massive bathroom that could fit a football team in.  We had decided that we should just go for the room as it was far too late and we'd been on the uncomfortable road for far too long to care anymore. 

By the time we got downstairs Tom had just pulled up into the parking lot.  Apparently they had run out of fuel.   Half way back.  Of course, it turned out that the motorcycle riders were very much linked to this hotel by blood.  Once they started bellowing for their Mum who was this short, friendly looking lady who came downstairs to cook us something to eat just before we headed off to bed.

CROAK!  What the hell is that?  I though as a load croak echoed the other side of the door and woke me from my sleep.  The way the hallway echoed and amplified the croak temporarily freaked me out a little but I was too tired to have an issue with falling back to sleep and dreaming of the good old days lying comfortably in my upper bunk on the Trans-Siberian train as it chugged through the white deserted Siberian plateau.  Comfortably warm, listening to the Russians joke and laugh whilst eating and drinking.  Even though Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk took 3 days, it now seems like a walk in the park compared to the trip from Siem Reap to Banlung….  I just hope this volcanic lake we came to see is worth all the hassle!

The next morning we grabbed our bags and checked out of the Pink Hotel in search of the Lake View Lodge. The dust from the road filled the warm, stale air as we walked in the general direction of the lodge. The streets were largely empty apart from a few stalls selling drinks and snacks. The locals smiled as we passed by and were helpful in our bid to find were we wanted to get to. The lodge was indeed by the lake and we were greeted by the manager, a friendly guy who showed us to our beds, Nicky and Tom were in a private twin and I was in a five bed dormitory.

We had arranged with the manager three motorcycle drivers to take us to the volcanic lake that afternoon. It's mad to think back at how concerned I was at the thought of getting on the back of some crazy South East Asian's motorbike in Hanoi to now, where it now seems like everyday life. We arrived at the lake early afternoon just after the midday heat had been subdued slightly. This was our last day in Cambodia and all we wanted to do was relax by the lake and have a refreshing swim in the 700,000 year old Yeak Laom volcanic lake. I had been dying to get into some water for a swim ever since leaving Sihanoukville. In a way it was worth the journey, the water was beautifully refreshing and we spent a good couple of hours jumping in, swimming around and forgetting about the previous days journey.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Like a tin of sardines indeed, Siem Reap - Banlung, 24 April 2011

One solitary minibus sits still on the gravel, the morning is dark and wet following an overnight shower.  I am part of a group of nearly twenty people standing in bemusement as the driver attempts to squeeze us and all of our bags into the tiny bus that should only carry 16 people.  The bags a piled high on the front passenger seats and overhang the four seats that face away from the driver directly behind him.  All the time, our comments declaring this as a farce are met with a response, "This is only for 3 hours until we meet your VIP bus".  It's of no use complaining at the situation and as he says, it's only for three hours until we meet our bigger and more comfortable bus that will take us to Banlung. 

Five people are squeezed onto each row that should only seat 4 people.  It's uncomfortable.  Tom and I are sitting behind the driver facing backwards and our heads are tilted downwards as the bags stop us from sitting back with our heads against the head rests.  It's uncomfortable.  We feel lucky as there are only three people on our row but  just before we departed another girl hoped aboard and we were squeezed up with our hip bones grating against one another.  It's only for three hours, then we will have comfort once again.
The driver smiles as he knows he's got away with it again and slams the door shut without hesitation.   With that slam, a bag hanging over our heads gets dislodged and slowly falls upon us.  The bus hasn't even moved yet and bags are falling.  The minibus winds it's way through the still quiet streets of Siem Reap and the sun is now beginning to brighten the sky.  It's the second time in a week that I had been up for sunrise althoughthe first time, despite the initial anxiety, was far more pleasurable.  Whilst watching the tourist centre of Siem Reap disappear, I remember what Dr Richner had said last night.  He reminded us that although the centre of Siem Reap is full of expensive hotels and nice restaurants, it is a fascade that is masking the true poverty of Cambodia for tourists. 

An hour has past by since we left the city limits of Siem Reap and the rain has begun to drop heavy loads on us.  When the rain falls, fear of accidents increases.  Despite the rain, the minibus is getting warmer and we're stuck with the decision of having the window open and getting wet, or keep it shut and let the hot and humid air slowly suffocate us.  We chose to open the windows.  The bus is full of tired looking western faces all feeling let down yet again.  Nobody speaks.  Everybody is just staring blankly at the flat terrain passing by out of the window, it's flat like Norfolk and reminds me of home somewhat.  Some have MP3 players blasting music in their ears as they try to forget where they are and let their musical memory take over for a while. 

My treasured companion on this trip is my Creative Zen MP3 player and I don't know what I would do without it.  Everytime I leave somewhere I have a routine check of my important items, wallet, passport, camera, MP3 Player.  All other items are circumstantial and easily be replaced.  I made a terrible mistake in China when I was trying to transfer some episodes of '24' onto my Zen and instead of hitting 'Eject', I hit 'Format' (stupid buttons are next to each other!) and it wiped my entire music collection.  Thankfully, I had brought an external hard drive with all of my music on so it wasn't lost forever due to my incompetent Mandarin reading skills.

The journey is becoming increasingly tedious as we drive along an unremarkable road that has the normal amount of bumps in it than any South East Asian Country that intermittently stir you from your slumber.  It's now been a couple of hours since we left Siem Reap and it still hasn't stopped raining.  The bus driver slows and negotiates his way off the road and into a small car park.  Great, it must be break time.  Time to stretch the legs, grab a bit to eat and go to the toilet.  As soon as the doors open, everyone becomes excited and impatience fills their eyes as they want freedom from the cramped minibus and taste some fresh air.

I have learnt that pit stops in South East Asia are inconsistent and sometimes far too long.  This stop was no exception, we're standing there looking at each other with eagerness as we want to get back on the road and to our destination whilst the driver sits there munching down some noodles and drinking gallons of tea.  I wonder how much the bus drivers receive from the owners for bringing their load to a persons shop/café?  I leave the restaurant area and quickly run next door where a make shift shop has been erected under some tarpaulin.  There were several baskets with different types of goods in them, mainly biscuit type treats.  I bought a packet of digestive biscuits from the lady and returned to the restaurant with the other people waiting patiently.

It wasn't long until the bus driver stood up and began to summon us to the bus.  Only another hour, I was thinking.  It's already been two hours, the worst is over.  We all climb back into our seats in silence.  Some have food, some have drink and some don't have anything and sit there staring outside again, speechless.  Indeed another hour did pass by and the bus stopped on the side of the road.  Fantastic, I thought as I admired the 'V.I.P' bus parked up beckoning people aboard to experience its luxury.  'People go to Laos, get off, change bus now.'  the bus driver ordered.  'What?  How about Banlung?' I enquired.  'No, one more hour.  Then change bus.' he responded.

Feeling dejected, we're back on the bus again but at least there is more space to stretch out comfortably since half the passengers have got off.  I intermittently look at my watch and the second hand seems to be moving backwards. However, unnervingly true to his word, the bus pulls into a town, with incredibly dusty streets and we're asked to get off.  We are asked to queue up at a desk to exchange our tickets for our next bus.  You can sense that everybody is happy and utterly relieved to finally be getting onto our 'VIP' bus and perhaps relax for a few more hours until we reach Banlung. 

In a happy and prosperous step, I lead the others across the road with our bags in our hands towards the bus that is waiting to take us the rest of the way.  After safetly navigating the traffic I begin to climb into the bus and as my head turns to view the inside, my smile lessens and my mind begins to boggle.  There are no available seats left on the bus.  Not only were there no seats left, the isle was also full of people sitting on packages and bags of rice.  The sea of Khmer faces stare back at me blankly as I turn around and pass on the bad news to the others. 

"You're not going to believe this guys, but there are no seats left!"  I warn the others and in shock and disbelief they each go onto the bus and discover the truth of my words.  Swearing begins amongst the group as the final straw has very much borken the camels back.  I head back across the road with a couple of others and confront the man.  "Excuse me?" I begin politely.  "How do you expect us to fit on that bus."  I ask and am met with a blank look.  "There are eight of us and there are no seats." 
        "On your bag, on your bag!" The man insisted.
        "How?  No room in aisle!"  I returned.
        "On your bag!"  He annoyingly repeated.
        "We can't!  There is NO ROOM!"  I fired back feeling frustrated.
        "We want a F***ING seat!" The Northern English girl returned angrily.
        "No, get on now, on bag."  He defended.
        "I don't think you understand…  We paid $28 and there is NO ROOM to get on!"  I said in an effort of understanding. 
        "Not my problem!"  He stated in an attempt to end the debate.

By saying those three words he ignited a rage deep within me.  How dare he stand there and tell us it's not his problem.  "Who's problem is it then?"  I enquired.

        "Not mine.  Get on the bus." He flippantly responded. 
        "How can you say it's not your problem.  You work for the company who sold us our tickets, right?  Then it is your problem!"  I try to remain calm as others begin shouting and swearing at him.

Whilst this debate continued, the driver of the bus had obviously reached his cut off point and drove away without us. A brief moment of silence followed where we all looked at one another.
“When is the next bus?” We enquired.
“Tomorrow!” He replied dryly without an ounce of care in his voice.

Oh great, we are now stuck in the middle of nowhere. We were not getting any further, so we provided the man with some options. Either, they take us all the way to Banlung in the minibus or pay for accommodation overnight and guarantee seats on the next bus. The man picked his phone up and dialled a number, he began to speak fast and agitated down to the person on the other end and then presented the phone to me and said “Boss!”

I took the phone and explained our predicament to the lady on the other end. She was speaking fairly good English and asked me what we wanted her to do. What did we want them to do? The bus we wanted was full and had just left us. An option was for us to stay in this town until the next day when we could try and get on the bus again but they weren't prepared to pay for our accommodation. Another was for the minibus to take us half way to Kratie where we could get on the bus and hopefully get a seat from people who got off. They refused this option too. The only option was for the minibus to drive us to catch up with the 'VIP' bus and the lady promised us some plastic seats to sit on in the isle. After arguing some more and trying to stand up for our non existent rights we gave up and got back on the minibus to catch up with the bus. The driver was driving like a maniac as he was fuelled with frustration at these foreigners who had caused him so much grief. I wasn't sure we'd actually make it to the bus alive.

Around ten minutes had passed and we pulled into a roadside restaurant where the 'VIP' bus was parked up waiting for us. What never occurred to the driver was that there was no space on the bus back in that small unknown town, how would there be space now? So here we are, a bit further down the road but with the same issue. We all climbed out of the minibus and grabbed our bags. As soon as we were outside the argumentative man, whose problem it was not, was heading back inside the minibus to drive away but I literally jumped in front of the van to stop them and told him that he wasn't leaving until we got on the bus.

The negotiations continued just like before but this time it was with the bus driver and after another ten minutes, he stopped, hopped aboard clearly at the end of his patience and began driving away without us. The bus started to reverse back onto the road and we had no option but to jump aboard. I was the last one to jump on and it was a squeeze, I was hanging out of the door as the bus reached the road and began driving off. I feared that it was going to be like this for the next 6 hours.

My fears were brought to an abrupt end as the bus pulled over at a road side garage. The driver stood up and barged by us, pushing me out of the bus onto the gravel. I watched on angrily as the bus driver talked to the man and his wife who obviously owned this garage. I say garage but it was more like a shack where they lived but had some mechanical tools. They finished talking and walked towards the rear wheel. The driver, a large man, eased himself onto the floor, laid on the floor and pulled himself under the bus to inspect the inside tyre which had obviously had a puncture.

The drivers assistant, a small lanky young man had retrieved some tools and had attended to retrieving the spare wheel from under the bus. The other passengers remained on board the bus, looking idly on as it was routine. I was calming down after our anguishing last hour and enjoyed a moment of peace looking around the garage on my own. As the workman, the driver and his assistant pulled off the offending wheel, several passengers obviously had had enough and got off the bus and walked away looking to hitch the rest of their journey. That was great news for us as it meant there maybe just enough space for us to squeeze further on the bus.
Nicky and Tom with our Northern bus friends, it's funny now!

The wheel had been repaired and we were back on the road again but this time we had managed to find enough room to use the plastic stools that were supplied to us. It was uncomfortable, Nicky's knees pushed into my back and in turn my knees in the back of the girl in front. It's only until we reach Kratie, we reminded our selves, only to Kratie. The hours passed by slowly and Kratie seemed to be an allusive place that would never appear. To my left, A northern English girl had squeezed herself onto a seat with two Cambodian boys who seemed less than happy to share their seats with her and to my right an angry German girl sat there periodically swearing at the driver and his assistant as they sneered and laughed at our uncomfortable position.

Kratie finally appeared three long hours later. This is where we would finally be getting a seat all to ourselves. We all looked on with eager eyes, locating potential seats but they never materialised and the bus moved off with even more angry foreigners on board than ever. I wouldn't mind this situation if we had only paid $5 like my train ride in Mongolia, I got what I paid for and I accepted it but this is blatantly taking the piss. Paying $28 to be lied to and treated like cattle. Even more frustration is that there is nothing we could do to put things right or complain. We had to accept this situation, embrace it and understand that we would look back at this journey and laugh about it.

I finally got a seat for the last couple of hours as we turned of the paved road onto the a gravel like surface. The bus hit pot hole after pot hole throwing us side to side making us hang on to the seat in front. Nicky was still on the floor but seemed to be comfortable enough. Tom was lucky enough to have gotten a seat a very long time ago somewhere down the back of the bus. As we travelled across the precarious wooden bridges over streams, rivers and ravines that creaked as the bus made its way steadily across. The sun had gone down a long time ago which made visibility down this narrow gravel road, surrounded on both sides by jungle nearly non existent. Every now and again we would see solitary houses amongst the trees with fires burning.

We eventually arrived in Banlung around 9pm after one hell of a journey....  But that wasn't the end of it.....