Sunday, June 1, 2014

Laos Part 1.

March 7. Stung Treng Cambodia to Don Det Island Laos. 93 km.
Quick but hot run to the border. We only stopped a couple times to snap some pictures. There was a funny billboard I had seen all over Cambodia that needed to be captured. At the border we go to get our passport stamped. They say I need to go to customs for the bike. She goes to get an Ice coffee because I tell her it might be a while. I did not have much of anything for documents from Cambodia so I didn't know ho much arguing I would have to do. At customs they looked a my registration and sad “Ok”.
“No stamp or paperwork?” I ask.
“Ok”
“Ok” I say and go back to get her to stamp our passports.
They look through my passport and say “2$ please for stamp.”
I said “no. I never pay for stamp. Stamp the passport. Please”
They stamped my passport. There were 6 or 7 backpackers behind me who I could hear arguing about the $2 stamp. I told her not to pay for the stamp and demand they stamp it. In Laos we fill out the paperwork for visa. The guy is resting in the trailer on a bed. There are about 10 of us waiting for him. No reason, but he says “10 minutes.. wait”. About 30 minutes later we are able to give him our passports and 30 minutes after that we get them back ready to go. Before he could give her passport back, he says there is no Cambodia stamp. I walk back to Cambodia side with her and tell the asshat to stamp her passport please. He doesn't look at me and stays “2$ please”. I say “bullshit, stamp her passport now.” There might have been an Fbomb or 2 dropped. He stamped it and we walked back across the border to get the visa in her passport. The guy says I have to stop at customs with my motorcycle about 1 km up the road. Later we would see the backpackers again and learn that they waited 5 hours for a bus to pick them up on the Laos side of the border. High five to personal transport! We ride off sweaty, frustrated and tired. I have half a mind to “forget” about stopping at customs and worry about the paperwork (bribe) on the other side. But I decide to stop. I show the guy my documents and he looks at it quick and hands it back “Ok”
I ask him if there are any documents I need. He waves at me to go away without even looking up from his iPhone. I guess this is better then him giving me a hard time. We are in. Laos doesn't seem much different from Cambodia yet. The first thing we would notice though, children in Cambodia yell “hello” as you drive by so we never knew how to say hello in Khmer. In Laos, the children yell “sabadee”. We figure out quickly this is hello.

Finding a boat to Don Det took longer than we thought it would. In the end we paid $10 for a big boat where we were the only passengers. Once on the island we rode around the outside once to look for a bungalow. 2nd time around we found a place that would be decent for a few days.

I saw this billboard a lot in Cambodia. I made myself stop and take a picture because it always made me smile.


Looking back at Cambodia

Unused Laos buildings.



They use these "generator" motors for everyting



March 8 to 10. Don Det Island.
Don Det is an interesting place. There are no police on the island so it almost seems like its own country. Backpackers seem to get lost here. You can get “happy” pizza or shakes if you wanted to. Every cafe seems like it has people smoking joints without a care in the world. If you try this in other parts of Laos, you will have to empty your pockets to the police. I've heard of backpackers getting $500 fine for possession. Not a bad bribe if you are the police. That is probably more than their salary as a cop. There was also a cafe where you could buy a 500GB hard drive preloaded with movies, music and TV shows. No doubt they were bought legally.
We washed cloths including my jacket which she said was way to stinky. I tried to remind her that this is motorcycle travel. Stinky jacket, pants and boots are part of the experience. Its funny how woman have a way of changing your mind. But she was right. It was much nicer putting on nice smelling jacket and pants for the next week or so.
Don Det has an interesting history. In the “4000 Island” area of the Mekong river, there are many waterfalls and rapids. There was no way for a steamer to get from the lower Mekong to the upper Mekong. Around 1900 when Lao, Vietnam and Cambodia were a French colony, the french felt they needed gunships on the upper Mekong river in order to deal with any problems that might arise with the neighboring UK colony of Burma. In order to get the gun boats to the upper Mekong, a railway was constructed on Don Det and Don Kohn islands. They are connected by a large (once) railway bridge made from concrete. Until recently, this was the only railway ever built in Laos. Now there is a passenger station near Vientiane.
After a few days of laying around and exploring the islands, it was time to move on.

Lots of small moth bugs from the river.



Old railroad bridge.






They were enjoying taking pictures of a cute blond girl in a bikini. But didn't like when I photoed them. 

Some of the many falls in the area.





Fence made from old railroad track.
March 11. Don Det to Paske. 160 km
Leaving the island was interesting. This time instead of a big boat, we had 2 canoes that were connected with a few small boards. When we were crossing I watched the board under my side stand flexing and I thought for sure it would break through. Luckily it didn't and we made it to shore. Before we could unload we had to wait for a similar boat with 2 cows. The ride to Paske was not very interesting and quite hot so we just burned kms. Once in Pakse we found a decent hotel in the center. We walked around town and found a “mall” and in this mall was a bookstore. I asked them if they had a map of Laos and to my surprise they did. It looked great so we bought it. It wasn't till later that I discovered I had bought a GT Riders map. Golden Triangle Riders is a great website for information on riding in SEA and they happen to put out some of the best maps for the area. I guess we got lucky.

Traffic jam at the ferry landing. Seems the cows are first in the cue.



Yeah! What looking?

I said What looking?!?!?

March 12. Paske to Paksong. 95 km
The first waterfall we went to was not so interesting but the second was amazing. We were guessing it was about 30 meters or so tall. It was a hot day so getting drenched by the mist was great. We went a little further and decided to stay in Paksong. We wanted to get some local coffee so we went to a few coffee shops to look. After a few cups of coffee we hadn't found one we both liked and we were so wound up we couldn't drink anymore. We stayed at the nicest hotel in town and it seemed like we were the only people there. In the morning we would see a few other tourists.





Good time to cool off. 
Coffee time

woops.


March 13. Paksong to Pin. 223 km
The Coffee region of Laos is quite high in elevation. It was quite a refreshing morning. Nice and cool but that only lasted a few hours until we dropped back down into the hot dry plains. We had some iced coffee in Salavan and continued on to the gravel roads north. 10 km later we arrived a pretty good size river that we needed to ride across. I told her to get off and walk across but she asked if I was joking. No, I can't ride across this river with you on the bike. “Yes you can, I'm not getting my boots wet”. Hmm this could be a problem. Until now, we had only really been in dry weather. I assumed people who ride bikes don't care about their feet getting wet. I was trying to decide when a guy on a scooter rode through with not problem. It didn't look to bad when he did it but I must have missed his track because some of it was pretty deep. We made it through and continued. The track for next 40 or so km was what seemed like an old railroad grade. The elevation was kept very constant and the road was always 3 to 8 meters above the normal ground. At times it was fast but mostly you were dodging rocks or potholes. There was a small town where we found fuel and continued north. The road was now getting more and more technical. For what seemed like 25 km, I was never able to take the bike out of 1st or 2nd gear. We had to cross the Banghiang River on a barge. From the river it was construction into Pin. We saw a guesthouse in Pin so we stayed. By then it was getting later in the evening and we were not sure if the next town would have any hotels.

Coffee flowers. 

Buss hit electrical lines. They just cut the lines and left them on the ground.


People getting money for a wedding.. I think.


River crossing. There were shallow parts and deep parts. I found the deep parts. 




Sand.



A Russian GAZ 66. The ferry sure sank down when it drove on. 
March 14. Pin to Thakhek. 301 km
There is a cave near Bualapha that we wanted to check out. From the little information we could find, the Xebangfai Cave is almost 10 km long and has the Xe Bang Fai River flowing through it. We thought we would check it out. We road about 30 or 40 km of gravel to get to Bualapha. It was not technical riding by any means but we did tip over once. We were riding through a small village and a small stream ran across the road making large pond in the road. I slowed for a second to choose my route. She tapped me on the shoulder and said “go left”. The left side was where the cows were walking, the right side was where the scooters were going. The left was quite muddy and I got bogged down. The my front tire was out when the rear lost total traction and began to spin. When I tried to support the bike my foot sunk into the mud and we tipped toward the pond. She was mad her feet got wet and said “Why did you listen to me?” When we got to Bualapha it was time for coffee again. Being so close to Vietnam it was easy to find real Vietnam coffee. For those of you who have not tried Vietnam Coffee, it is quite amazing. We were drinking coffee and I was kind of staring toward the street. Near the cafe there was a dog with a bad limp. Before I realized what was happening, I had been watching a dog and monkey playing for about 30 seconds. They looked like best friends. Then the monkey ran off and the lady from the cafe would try to get it back with a bribe apples yelling “key key key”. We knew were the cave was because of a GPS point, but in my maps, there was no “road” to it. We took a road that was in the correct direction and soon we were closing in on the cave. We knew we were close when we spotted the only sign for the cave about 2 km from the mouth. There was no one there when we arrived. A dump truck down at the river, and a few kids fishing. We rode down to the river and snapped a few pictures because we didn't know where to go. We rode back up to find 3 guys sitting there. They were guides for the cave and they would take us in. There were wooden boats that were all half underwater. I don't think many people came here. The guide paddled us into the cave about 1 km and we stopped a sandy beach. We climbed a hill to another branch of the cave which opened up into many other rooms. The cave was pretty interesting but with no ventilation, I was sweating pretty bad. Once back on the bike we rode 130 km to Thakhet. About half of it was gravel but it was quite fast. Nothing like the trails the day before. We were quite tired and in need of a shower and a good meal. There was a nice 2 stroke enduro sitting outside of a hotel/restaurant so that is where we stopped. I'll be the first one to admit, when I am tired at the end of a long day, I don't like to spend as much time searching for the cheaper room. Its pretty common for the first place I stop at to take. Especially in Asia where even though $25 is an expensive room, it is dirt cheap compared to Europe or USA. Plus, a $25 room in Asia will be a palace.





Trying to figure out the price of fuel.






Friends.




Photo op on the river.

Not sketchy at all.



Some sort of bird.






March 15. Thakhek
We took a rest day and had some laundry done. We tried to walk around the town but after about 45 minutes we were back in the AC comfort of the hotel room. Asia is to hot for this northern kid. In the evening we went to get some street food. The grilled chicken was good but the sauce used on the papaya salad was way to fishy taisting/smelling for me. I love the spicy fish sauce, but sometimes its way to strong. I don't mean spicy strong, I mean garbage at a fishmarket strong.





Fake legos? Not cool. 



March 16. Thakhek to Konglor. 268 km.
In the morning we went to a “Buddha cave”. I thought it would be interesting because it was a forgotten cave with over 230 Buddha in it. It was rediscovered in 2004 and some of the Buddha figures are said to be over 300 years old. The biggest ones were about 1 meter and the smallest ones a couple of inches tall. The cave itself was small and we were not allowed to take pictures inside. We joked that they don't want pictures, because then people won't come to this cave because they would see how small the cave is. The story was more interesting than the cave itself and after a few minutes we left. We went north toward to circle back to Kong Lor. We climbed up over a small mountain range to find a relatively new reservoir. The whole valley was flooded and trees still stood in the water. There were new villages where we assumed people were relocated to. Nam Theun River 2 dam was built between 2006 and 2008. In the wet season in 2008 the dam started blocking the water and by 2009 they were running test power. By 2010 the dam was in full operation. If you look on google earth here, you will see some pictures show the lake, and some still show the river.https://www.google.com/maps/@17.6919463,105.2652144,5851m/data=!3m1!1e3
The road around the new lake was fresh chip seal with 1” rocks used instead of pea gravel. It was some of the scariest surface to ride on because the rocks would roll very easily under your tires. They also wanted to push the front tire around some. Once past the lake we hit over used dirt road with construction for improvements. We got through the dusty banged out crap and turned on to a nice paved road just as my rear tire went flat. I was thinking how long have I been riding on a flat? Maybe for a long time but I just noticed it when I hit pavement. I was very worried my valve stem was torn from my tube because I knew that would be the case if I rode on her for a while. I pulled the tire off and we found a large nail in her. Luckily the tube was repairable. Some of the locals let me use the shade of their tree and really enjoyed the show. Most were to shy to come close. They watched from behind the fence or through the window. When I would look up, they pretended they were doing something else and not watching. The road into Kong Lor took us through a nice valley with large cliffs on either side and tobacco fields on the flat floor. Where we stayed was about 35 km from where we ate lunch near the man-made lake, but we had to ride about 150 km to get to it. We were there to late to visit the Kong Lor cave that night so we decided to do it in the morning. We ate dinner with a couple from Boston and an older gentleman from Florida at a good little local restaurant. Back at the guesthouse we found a gecko's older sterroriod injected brother. This thing was about 10 inches long and was chilling next to our door. Gekkos will scare easy but this guy just looked at us. I put my hand about 1 foot from him and he turn and looked at me like “ Really dude? I wouldn't do that”. I gave him his space and we went to bed.


Playing and riding. No big deal. 




Not fun to ride on. 








Tobacco fields



March 17. Konglor to Vientiane. 315 km.
We woke up early and went to the caves. When we got there, we met another guy who wanted to go through. It was for the boat and 3 people can ride (plus 2 tour guides). So he joined us so we would all save a little bit of money. The boats were a wooden canoe with a 5 horse motor mounted on the back. Off the 5 horse is a 8 foot shaft with a prop. They would siply lift the prop so it was barely in the water if the river got shallow. The echo of the single popping in the 7 km long tunnel was something to hear. Defiantly interesting. A bit nerve wracking at times, mostly because I'm not in control. On the other side of the cave is a valley that can basically only be reached by boat through the cave. There are some locals on the other side who have small coffee shacks. Their kids are running around half naked smiling and having a good time. While we sipped on a nescafe 3 in 1, our new friend took out a bubble mix and started blowing bubbles. The reaction from the kids was great. The immediate action was to pop every bubble. I was curious if this is how kids would always react to bubbles? When we rode back through we passed about 7 or 8 other boats. Good to get an early start I guess. We were back on the bike around noon and decided to try to ride all the way to Vientiane. We had about 90 km on a nice twisty road then 225 on the main highway. We were able to keep the speed up but it still took us all day to get there. We found a hotel room in the capital after dark.







Our new friend.





A couple thousand dollars worth of teak. 









March 18, 19 Vientiane
We explored the city some but again, it was way to hot for both of us. I hope I don't complain about the cold weather as much as I do about the hot. Because I really do like it more. I think it is only magnified by the fact that I should be snowboarding right now. I'm not sure what will happen in the next few months but my body is defiantly out of season. It is almost like jetlag but longer. We applied for a visa for her at the Thai embassy because she can only get a 2 week visa on the border otherwise. This was quite easy an only took 1 day to process. I still had a 2nd entry on my visa that I had taken in Korea. It took some searching but we found a 18 inch tube for the KTM. Since Japan I had been running without a spare rear tube. Sometimes when you travel for a long time, you start to feel comfortable in situations you wouldn't normally. After I got the flat a few days earlier, I realized how it was dumb to ride without a spare rear. I usually always carry a spare front and rear. Luckily this time it didn't bite me but it could have been bad. On the 19th we got her passport back with the Thai visa. We made plans to leave the next day.  

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