Sunday, 20 June 2010


Both of us would admit that we knew very little about Laos before we arrived. It's one of those countries which occupies a more mysterious place in South East Asia, being a little more obscure in terms of a cultural identity compared with its more high-profile neighbours China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. With borders closed to foreigners until the nineties it's still a land relatively new to tourism too and as a result still feels pretty wild, but we'd heard nothing but good things about the place and its people.

Arriving after what had been a wierd last few days in Cambodia, we headed for Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands) in the Champasak Province - the legendary inland delta where the upper Mekong flows so wide that large inhabitable islands have been forged, some with villages on them and (four with electricity). For the majority of our trip so far we'd had a guide book with us for general info, but for Laos we hadn't had the chance as the last town we had been to had turned out to be devoid of shops selling anything useful, so we really didn't have any idea what to expect or really where the hell we were heading.

Once we had reached the end of our bus journey we were taken down to small longboats on the river which ferried us through the channels to the islands. Along with our new friend Sam from Essex who we'd met on the bus out of Cambodia we'd decided to stay on Don Dhet, which from the info we could gather had the best options for accommodation. Probably the best way to describe the small island which we were staying on would be medieval. It looked like the set of Robin Hoods Adventures in Asia - pigs, chickens, ducks and children wandered around a dusty village set along the bank of the river. Men and women fished, bathed and cleaned their clothes in the water as small boats floated past. There were no cars, just bicycles, and the odd moped (mainly ridden by six year old kids). Our huts were little more than wood panels nailed to four uprights and cost us about two pounds per night, but as locations go there are few five star hotels in the world that could match the magic of staying on that island. We all fell instantly in love with the place.

The next four days were some of the best we'd had while travelling - there is something totally liberating about being in a place that wild and far removed from the rest of the world, about being able to walk around shoeless and swim in clean river water, that you forget almost everything about home. Being on an island, we quickly met a bunch of guys in the bar near us too who we spent the evenings chatting, drinking arguing and listening to a lot of ACDC with. On a couple of afternoons we all headed out on bicycles to explore the island and its neighbour Don Khon which was genuinely one of the strangest and most beautiful places you can imagine. Around every corner would be something else that would litteraly make you stop in your tracks; the grail being an incredible thundering waterfall leading down to a secluded gorge with its own hidden inland beach. All of us were soaked from cycling in the heat so took at dip, only to find the water full of Doctor Fish (the tiny helpful fish that swim up to you and nibble dry skin from your feet). Sounds grim but, actually quite an interesting experience once you've realised its not a school of Pirhana trying to eat you...

It was tough to leave Don Dhet; I can imagine few places as idyllic. Several people we met were staying on and had either started to run up bills at the bar or shop or made the trek over the the mainland to get more money, and we could have easily done the same, but along with Sam, we made the decision to say goodbye and head north and see some more of the country. From the mainland we took a bus to Pakse, then the sleeper coach to Vientiane, Laos' capital. Yet again Asia's comedy armada of transport didn't fail to amuse, with our "sleeper" seats being basically a massive mattress at the back of the bus. Cosy.

There isn't really much reason to head to Vientiane if you don't need to; as a capital city it's not particularly inspiring and not particularly cheap either for S.E Asia. We had gone there however to organise our visas for Thailand. It's possible to obtain these at the border but they're only valid for fifteen days, so that meant a couple of early starts waiting outside the Embassy at seven AM along with three hundred other tourists, business people and expats. As usual, it was chaos. The rules regarding application had apparently changed a week or so before but the Thai consulate hadn't bothered update their website. Things got more entertaining still when some overly vocal Vietnam Vet from Brooklyn in the queue decided to get more than a little bit sexist and patronising with the wrong woman - Sam - and ended up getting a full on dressing down in front of the whole crowd. The guy may well have been spent two years in the jungle fighting the Vietcong, but he was definitely no match for a pissed-off Essex Girl.

Visas sorted, we had a night left before we were due to move on. Luckily, David and Zuzana, a couple we'd spent some time with in Goa in India were in town, so we met at a French Restaurant for some food and a catchup - the last civilized evening for a few days as the next stop was Laos' own Disney Land for grown ups - Vang Vieng...

View our pics here:

Southern Laos - 4000 Islands & Vientiane

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Road to Nowhere

I am crap at gambling. It's well known amongst my family and friends. The limit of my gambling ability stretches mostly to the odd after dinner game of Newmarket played with two pence pieces, matchsticks or Lego. Whilst I have been known to enjoy taking things to excess once in a while there is absolutely no chance of me ever becoming addicted to gambling, simply because I am so bad at it. My own Grandmother, even in her now less than sharpened state of awareness (and 90 this year bless her!) could probably still take me at a game of Pontoon. I have, however, always held a sneaking admiration for high-roller gambling and those that throw themselves at the card table like their life depended on it.

Clearly, in the real world most gambling is nothing like the smoky backroom poker thrills of The Sting or the edgy broken-romance of The Hustler; it is almost always half cut punters lobbing a fiver on a weekend Premiership match, or rolly-smoking middle-aged divorcees glued to the 3.45 at Chepstow down Ladbrokes on a drizzly Wednesday afternoon. So when you do actually meet a pair of proper gamblers, in a bar, in Cambodia on a Saturday night it makes an interesting change...

"Please! Come and join us!" was the cheery invitation from the couple at the table next to us. We were on our third jug of Angkor beer outside the Temple bar in Siem Reap in Central Cambodia. The following morning we were getting up to visit the mighty Angkor Temples. At four AM. It was already eleven PM. The temperature hadn't dropped below 35c all day, and had reached a whopping 44c mid afternoon. It was unbelievably humid. There really wasn't much to do all day but hang out where the air con was. And the cold beer. Conversation in the bar had turned to places we wanted to see in Europe, and we were discussing Southern France. The couple seated next to us it happened to be French, and were keen to impart some patriotic travel advice, so we joined tables and ploughed on through further jugs of cold lager. It turned out that they were Gamblers "by proffessione", and were literally betting their asses around Asia, which they were clearly managing quite successfully seeing as they had been on the road for over a year and were staying at one of the better hotels in town.

Both were in their late twenties and about as charming as you would expect from two people in their dubious line of business; they reminded me of something from a Roald Dahl short story. She came from Vietnamese origins, pretty and with the adopted chic of a Parisian, he was funny, quick witted and slightly crazy (and no, I didn't wake up with a finger missing having bet the air tickets...). We sat, talked and listened to stories about various casinos they'd played and some of eccentric and absurdly rich people they had met (mostly Chinese...). They had spent nearly a month in Macao, and played at plenty of dodgy backroom games all over, and when they weren't playing for real they spent all sessions night cleaning up at online poker. A strange life. But interesting conversation, and you couldn't help admire the bizarre Jack Kerouac-meets-Gordon Gecko attitude to travelling they seemed to have acquired. The only problem was by the time we had finished up it was well after one AM. Which meant we had three hours until we were being picked up by our rickshaw driver to head to Angkor Wat. Merde.

A few hours later, defibulated and vertical again thanks to a near-lethal caffeine overdose at the rickshaw drivers coffee stand, we were sat bug-eyed along with a few hundred other early risers at the gates of Angkor Wat, waiting for the sun to rear its blazing head over the temple. It didn't take long before we'd totally forgotten about how rotten we were feeling and were soon immersed in the sheer overwhelming beauty of the temple complex in the dawn light. Changing quickly from black silhouette against a purple sky to golden stone against the morning sun, it became clear why Angkor has held such a draw over worshippers and visitors for hundreds of years. We spent the early morning wandering round the temples and its surrounds and later headed on to Angkor Thom, and the Bayon which were perhaps even more impressive with their intricate carved faces and bas reliefs.

As the day wore on and the temperature (and crowds) rocketed once again, we headed last for Ta Prohm, a magnificent, partially ruined temple set deep in the jungle, entwined with vast trees growing right through its centre. Ta Prohm had a genuine fairytale feel to it, like something from one of the creepy, early Disney pictures or Brothers Grim stories. It had also, as you couldn't fail to hear about a million times, been used in one the Lara Croft movies, and just about every American and Japanese tourist there wanted a picture taken climbing through the doorway that Angelina Jolie had burst through, mammaries first, in the film; "OK Barb hon, just make your fingers like a gun and poke your head out the door... Smile! Neat!" etc.

We spent another day in Siem Reap, which isn't a half bad town to relax in. Clearly the influx of tourists on package trips to Angkor has led to demand for more upmarket restaurants than previously existed and even the BBQ joints are pricey now, but there are still some excellent places to eat and you can still do it quite cheaply too. The Khmer Kitchen in particular was fantastic (we ate there three times) and knocks out some very tasty Khmer traditional food. Had we known where we were headed next we probably would have eaten a shed load more of it.

Kratie, in North East Cambodia can only be described as a bum hole of a town. Think of a dusty, post-apocalyptic Asian version of Royston Vaysey. After a lengthy and bumpy ride through some pretty wild and sun scorched Cambodian outback, we finally arrived in this small and very odd outpost. We were on route to the Laos Border, but had decided to break the journey by stopping hopefully to see the rare local Irrawadi Dolphins, which live in the Mekong river nearby and now number very few indeed.

After about half and hour in town we had decided that there was clearly some sort of cartel going on in Kratie in which the owners of the only three dumps of hotels had got together to price-fix ridiculous room rates for themselves, knowing that there is sod all anyone can do about it until at least the next day, when the bus out of there rolls through once again. We looked at all three glittering palaces of delight and decided on the best of a bad bunch, which only just beat the other two as it had a window and didn't stink of damp. For this pleasure we were charged about fifteen quid, which was about quadruple the sensible rate. Restaurants were basically non-existent. Street food looked inedible. The hotel staff had clearly never even encountered the advanced and complicated mechanics of The Sandwich. People looked at you real funny. In the back of my head Banjos were duelling. Still, we were in the middle of nowhere now so what did we expect?

Anyway, with nothing else to do we set out by moto-rickshaw to see some endangered dolphins in the wild. We got lucky too. We spent just under a couple of hours out on a huge and stunning expanse of inland Mekong with these strange looking but graceful dolphins, rising and then disappearing with just a soft snort, just metres away from us. A real privilege. I just hope they're still there in ten years time.

However weird and fascinating our stay in Kratie was, nothing could have prepared us for what was going to unfold the next morning. Our bus was booked to Laos, and at seven AM we were waiting outside the hotel with packs on backs as the usual mini-van that rounded up the ticket holders collected us and headed off to to drop us to the main coach about twenty kilometres down the road (dumping off the usual chain-smoking family member tag-alongs en route). We were in good spirits, looking forward to getting the hell out of dodge and arriving at Loas' fabled Four Thousand Islands, and had struck up a friendly conversation with a dutch couple, Jonas and Mika, who were heading our way. Twenty minutes later at the side of a dusty road in the hazy morning sun we boarded our coach and off we went.

Anyone who's ever been to Cambodia can tell you that Cambodians don't drive like normal people. Not even like Indians. Getting a bus in Cambodia is like entering the Canonball Run involuntarily. We have been on buses where the driver will actually get off the bus and drink three cans of lager at the toilet stop, before getting back on and driving like he has a gun to his head whilst simultaneously singing along to the words of whatever nightmare Karaoke he has decided to put on the over-head telly.

The roads from Krace to the Laos border were pretty bad and the driving was the usual level of insanity, but we figured this was just the same crap, different day. Until the deafening bang of crunching metal came from the back of the bus. We must have been travelling at seventy MPH - there were no cars in front or behind us, just field after field of maize, and then the bus started to rear violently off the road to the right, making the sort of noise you never want to hear on a bus travelling at that speed. We never did find out exactly what happened - whether the tire exploded, or a wheel detached from the axle or whatever - but the driver lost control and we started to veer off the road very, very quickly.

Now, I am prone to the odd bit of over-exaggeration, but I genuinely thought that we were going to be mince-meat in about five seconds. It looked like as soon as the bus was going to come off the road into the drainage ditch we would flip straight over into the field and all I can remember was thinking "don't land on your bloody head" as I tried to stop Sammie flying over the top of me and through the opposite window. Somehow, instead of rolling fully over after coming off the road, we had smashed down the bank and ground to a halt and ended up wedged into the ditch. After a few seconds, someone shouted "is everyone OK in here?" (Gene Hackman from the Poseidon Adventure was obviously on the bus that morning...). All the seating had come free from the metal framing and I had landed full weight on the edge of a metal chair frame - large ouch, but thankfully no punctured lung. Sam, apart from a few grazes was fine, although white and looking like she had the worlds most over-active Thyroid, and we all climbed out of the wreck at the front. Every one quickly grabbed their bags from the hold which had broken open anyway and we clambered up the ditch and sat in the field, well away from the mess. Coolant, and god knows what else was leaking out of the roof and none of us fancied being close a mangled bus seeping fuel in the rising heat.

Anyway, after a bit of checking up, no one turned out to be hurt thankfully. Just very shell shocked. Not what you need before breakfast. Best of all though was the driver, who, behaving like a true hero, climbed straight out of the bus and legged it, full pelt down the road the minute it had crashed, waved down and jumped into the next car that came past, and disappeared, like some shit version of Kaiser Soze. It's stuff like that that makes you realise you really are a a very long way from home.

So, four Europeans, a couple of Canadians, a weird girl called Sam from Essex (we love you Sam!), a Cambodian woman and her two very freaked out and brave kids spent an hour in a field in god knows where, waiting for someone to turn up and get us to Laos. Sitting on the side of the road there it was hard to know whether what had just happened qualified as bad luck or good. Either way, our chips were still up and it was a hell of a way to make an exit...
View our pics here:
Siem Reap and the Angkor Temples

Kratie, Irawadi Dolphins & Crazy Bus to Laos Border