Friday, 10 February 2012

North by North North

We're working our way north through Laos, doing a bit of unavoidable but enjoyable backtracking.  It seems as though there's only really one (?)  major north/south road with any surface that is fit for traffic (no trains here no no), running up the western edge of the country to the mid-section and capital.  And so when I say our enjoyable backtracking, I mean epic rolling voyages of local chicken-buses flinstone'ing along at a supremely leisurely pace to avoid being shaken apart by the road.  We notched up a serene 11 hours for a 368km trip-  stop off’s to load and unload a LOT of cabbages, chickens, rice, and 2 motorbikes were partly to blame. 21mph average.  Seems freight and passengers are combined..

pity the passengers on this one

Our destination was Tha Khek, a stop off point to get some sleep.  Arriving in the dark (journey was timetabled 6 hours, was 11, see above) we found a nice place, with probably definitely the best room we've had in months. And cable telly (I watched Universal Soldier: The Return – rubbish).  So we stayed in, watched that for 2 days and made some new plans.

There's a 450km motorbike circuit, known as The Loop, done by a lot of travellers coming through this area. It takes in several smallish caves, a lake, dirt tracks, small villages, jungle, more off road dirt roads, an absolutely giant cave, highway riding and then home.  We'd not planned doing anything like this, and had never done anything on proper bikes before, but it sounded great, quite easy and you get a free map clearly drawn by a child to follow! What could go wrong? Its a 4 day / 3 night route- all we needed was a Bike and some glasses.  I ducked into a market and came out with this pair.

Laura: “hey cool! Just like the A-Team!”
“Yeah! like Murdoch?”
“yeah! Oh No.. not the a-team, Village People”
“that is a very different thing.”

We soon met a nice group who were on the same route, and we had ourselves a learner bike gang.  Petrol is sold from the usual stations in towns, as well as from glass whiskey bottles on road side stands by children for a small profit, and has an attractive reddish colour, like strawberry Fanta.

The bikes took an absolute and thorough beating, but held up.  Korean 100cc manual's are where its at, according to the locals who all seem to ride them too.  I think a dirt bike would have been a lot more suitable though.  Id hate to rent these bikes out to grinning tourists and set them loose on the roads we were on, with a quick 2 minute driving lesson (“he fine! No problem!”).  But as always I love the refreshing (non-european) 'lets just work it out', confident approach here.  A lot like my  cycle trip through Mexico 5 years ago. Our electrics did blow out on the first day though, after making it sing a bit loud on a short solo ride without Laura on the back ;)  It had a kick start on it too so we were OK for the rest of the trip.  It was a really fun time, and well worth the effort.  Here's some pictures...

The cave itself (on our day 3) is 7km long, and explored in boats of 3 people, plus 2 guides who push and pull the boat over the shallow parts.  I’ve been in several caves before, but this is by far the biggest.  Parts of it are cathedral sized spaces, and is a real mind blower.  We rented a good torch to fire around in the unlit  gloom.

Unfortunately our second camera is now broken as well.  I’ve had it into 6 pieces and back together again, but it still doesn’t work.  So that’s something we need to sort out asap.  Not really an expense we wanted :( Neither of us have worked since April last year, which is a funny thought, and hard on the ever decreasing finances.

We had a brief stay in the capital Vientiane, mostly occupied by arranging our Thai visa, so we can re-enter into the north with a full 60 day permit, instead of the walk-in 15.  Anyway, that went quite smoothly (just a lot of queueing) -  all in order officer.  We're presently in a little bamboo bungalow in Vang Vienne, 4 hours north of Vientiane, home of the notorious booze fuelled river tubing set-ups.  We are mainly getting our kicks from our hammock and eating nice food instead.  Too old for that now! It's a young man's game ;)

'Beer Laos' holds something like a 90% market share here apparently, and is an omnipresent Laos feature.  I think you could drink it in school and it would be OK.  Nice too :) “Drink of the wholehearted people” is the innocent tag line.  

I’ve never been in a country where everyone seems to get up uniformly at 5 or 6am and start banging and playing and motoring around.  Truly living on the sun's schedule.  It is the land of a thousand cockerels, and is a rude but natural soundtrack to each morning.

Laos is treating us very well indeed.

Next up, Luang Prabang - a long bus ride, do think of us...



  1. Great to hear how you're getting along. We loved Laos, wonderful relaxed place. Relaxed definitely being the operative word. Was never brave enough to get on a bike though, sounds like a proper adventure!

  2. Thanks John, yep we've really loved it - our favourite place so far. Unfortunately only a few days left but back for more adventures in the north of Thailand. Hope all's well! Take care x