“You enter, but car no enter.” – Head of Customs, Cham Yeam border, Cambodia

Border crossing: Had Lek, Thailand – Cham Yeam, Cambodia

09/10/16-12/10/16

Stats:
Days on the road: 184
Kilometres covered: 33,107km
Countries visited: 16

Today’s Special Stats:
Longest border crossing: move over China, there’s a new champion in town!
How many men does it take to let a British Defender into Cambodia? 13

 

We approached the border at Had Lek with more than a little trepidation, and distinctly soggy feet. It was monsoon weather outside and Caesar’s vent seals were doing their best impersonation of waterfalls. Why trepidation? We’d heard that border officials were becoming strict on some papers for the crossing, namely requesting a Carnet de Passage, despite it not being a legal requirement in Cambodia, and/or a permission from customs in Phnom Penh. Well, we didn’t have either of those – so we were hoping that some smiling, sweet talking, begging and “financial incentives” might help us across.

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Splish Splash Caesar’s having a bath!

We arrived at the Thai side (Had Lek) at 1:30pm on the 9th October, and were politely told by the Thai customs and immigration officials that we should check with the Cambodian officials as to whether they would let us in, before Thailand would let us out. Ok, that’s worrying. They told us we were free to pass into the Cambodian border area without stamping us and Caesar out, just in case it was bad news.

We passed through, and met a nice official who gave us some tissue to dry our glasses and who looked over our V5C (UK car registration document) before he asked us whether we had a carnet or a permission from Phnom Penh. “No, sir, this is news to us – can’t we just pay for a customs document here and now pretty please?” “No sir, no madam, car no enter.” Bugger. This wasn’t a great start. We then met his boss, and his boss’ boss, who all genuinely tried to help us, but could not let us pass.

It was quickly becoming clear that they were on strict instruction from Phnom Penh not to let anyone through without a carnet or permission. One or other is sufficient, but with neither we were stuck. “Sorry sir, madam, you enter but car no enter.” It took 4 hours to discuss his, and eventually they called our embassy for us, but had no luck as it was a Sunday, and then called a travel agent to see if they could help to arrange a permission but he was away. One of the officials eventually told us that the travel agent is a very expensive option, whereas doing it yourself (he said) was free. This would require us to go to Phnom Penh, some 4 hours drive by taxi, or wait until the morning for a bus that would take up to 10 hours, albeit a fraction of the cost.

At this stage we were facing a big predicament. If the permission and our trip to Phnom Penh took more than 3 days, we would overstay our Thai customs document for the car and jeopardise our return journey into Thailand to ship Caesar home. I did my best sad face and explained that by denying us entry to Cambodia, they were effectively forcing us to overstay our vehicle, which as they well know is illegal. It would also force us to have to buy a new Thai visa and then a subsequent Cambodian visa when we eventually did return with permission (assuming we get it!) so we could fetch Caesar and return to Cambodia with him, which would be pricy for us. They eventually agreed to let us check out of Thailand and enter Cambodia, parking Caesar just within the border, which we were really thankful for!

After checking out of Thailand (paying 25 baht fee for… something…), we got our Cambodian visas there, costing $37USD each and taking a whole 1 minute to process. Note – in Cambodia tourists pay dollars and may get dollars or Cambodian Riels in change. ATMs only give out dollars. We found a taxi driver with the help of the customs boss, and paid a pretty penny ($70!) to get to Phnom Penh. By now it was 6pm and the expected 4 hour journey turned into 6 hours… On the way our taxi driver (who spoke not a single word of English) stopped 5 times, nearly killed two dogs and a scooter rider, and got lost in Phnom Penh and spent 30 minutes discussing directions with the local police and Will in the street. This was all whilst either drenching us by having the windows open in the rain, or freezing us to death with the aircon on low. Great! Well worth the money! Finally we arrived at a hostel at midnight and checked in, glad to get some rest.

In the morning we went to the British Embassy, as we had been told by the border guys that they could prepare a letter for customs for us. The British Embassy is at No. 27-29, Street 75. We arrived and were greeted by a lovely English lady called Christine. It was terribly fitting that it was raining and they had a Land Rover and a photo of the Queen – excellent, where is my cup of tea and scone? Sadly, Christine wasn’t able to help us – she knew nothing of the permission we needed and couldn’t get hold of the Ministry of Customs and Excise. She told us to go to the Customs office and see what they needed, and come back with more information if we needed our embassy’s support.

So off to Customs we went. Address: No. 6-8, Norodom Boulevard (street 41), Phnom Penh. By now it was 10am, and we were eventually directed around the back of the main building (round to the left) and up three flights of stairs to the first door on the left. I couldn’t tell you which department this is, but the lady there simply asked us whether our car is left or right hand drive, asking if we had our request letter, and then told us to come back at 2pm to meet her manager. We said we could write a letter and come back at 2pm. We bided our time in a local café, writing the letter requesting our admittance for Caesar, and getting our documents ready to show the customs guys. We were now pretty worried as to whether being right hand drive would be a problem… And then read that right hand drive vehicles are illegal in Cambodia. Hopefully being only on a temporary import would mean this wasn’t an issue. We sat and brewed and worried for 4 hours, before returning to the customs office.

Upon our return we met a really friendly customs boss, who explained we must first go to the Ministry of Tourism to ask them to approve our letter… We asked him to show us where it was on the map, and he said it was near the Olympic stadium. Woohoo – my time to shine, time to be a relationship builder – I don’t work in sales for nothing you know! I asked him when Cambodia hosted the Olympics, and told him about how proud Britain was to host the Olympics in 2012. By the end he was smiling and happy, we made a good impression which we hope will play in our favour when he comes to sign our letter later.
Well, at least it had stopped raining by now!

Next stop, the Ministry of Tourism, address: 3a, street 169, Phnom Penh. We were welcomed by two of the sweetest Cambodian girls who checked us in and showed us to the “permission admin man”, Kiron. He helped us to tailor our request letter better, including:
– our information – passport numbers and expiration, nationality
– car registration info – reg plate, chassis number, country of registration
– itinerary for Cambodia
– dates of stay for the car
– border entry/exit points
– purpose of visit
– Caesar being right hand drive
– our contact details (try to get a Cambodian SIM card to make this easy

He then took copies of:
– V5C (car registration document)
– passports
– Cambodian visas
– international drivers permits
– and printed our letter and a photo of Caesar.

Will then had to sign the letter (as the owner of the vehicle), and Kiron filled out two forms in Khmer, summarising the purpose and duration of our visit.
We had read that technically you need a Cambodian license to drive here, but Kiron felt the IDP would be sufficient. We asked Kiron why this paperwork was being enforced now. He said that in the last 2 months he had received many more requests than normal. He believed it was because the borders and government were getting stricter because foreigners were leaving their cars in Cambodia more and more often. This is a big trouble for Cambodia, and so they needed to control overlanders more closely. He didn’t know why they were requesting the Carnet, but the permissions were becoming commonplace.
The next step would be for Kiron to submit our application to the Minister for Tourism. He couldn’t tell us how long it would take for the Minister to assess and approve / reject our request, so he said he would call and email once it was ready. The waiting game began…

In all of this palaver so far, there are some simple but important points we have picked up from locals and one American gent in the café where we wrote our letter. Some may be obvious, but we hope it helps:
– be ridiculously polite at the border and at the different ministries. Because of other overlanders leaving their cars behind, some officials feel we have a bad reputation. We found that if you ‘wai’ the officials, they are kinder and more helpful.
– using a travel agent may be a more expensive option but we understand that would mean that you wouldn’t have to lose time going to Phnom Penh first if you use an agent before arrival.

We spent the evening fretting over whether being RHD would be a showstopper, and trying to convince ourselves it would be OK or we would have been rejected there and then.

In the morning we decided to rent a tuk tuk driver for the day to take us around. We didn’t know if we’d hear from the Ministry so we figured this way we’d have a fixed price for any driving around in circles we might have to do. Our tuk tuk driver’s name was either Pizza or Pisshead, we weren’t sure but, with a name like that, what’s not to like! Our first stop was S21 (Tuol Sleng museum) which we’ll write a separate blog about, to make this one as simple as possible.

Just after we left S21 and began driving to the Killing Fields, Will got a call from no less than the Minister for Tourism himself, saying he wanted to meet us. So our lovely tuk tuk driver took us to the Ministry instead – obviously not quickly enough as the Minister actually rang Will back demanding we hurry up as it was lunchtime and he was hungry!
The Minister was in the same building as Kiron, on floor 3, room 301. He went through some basic questions about our car and journey before signing off our request. He then sent us along to the Customs office again.

Pizza took us for lunch (I had fried rice in a pineapple – pure genius!) and then we went to customs for 2pm when we knew they would be back from their lunch. The same man we met the day before greeted us, took our papers and said to return at 5pm when his boss would be out of his meeting and they could sign off everything.

After an afternoon at the killing fields, Pizza returned us to customs at a Britishly early 4:45pm. This was apparently an hour early in fact, and we waited until 5:40pm for the first man to sign it and get his boss to sign it, before being sent upstairs for Mr Sun to sign it too! He had lots of very important looking stamps.

We finally escaped just before 6pm and asked Pizza about buses back to the border. He took us to ask our hostel, who were frankly unhelpful, and could only offer tickets for $21 each and not leaving until the next day, meaning we also had to pay for their hostel again and waste a day travelling back in a slow bus. Pizza saved the day and called his taxi friend who came to meet us and offered $90 which we whittled down to $80. Ok, not cheap but it bought us an extra day, and meant we could camp in Caesar and be ready to cross first thing.

We thanked Pizza for all his help and gave him a big tip for being amazing all day! It’s amazing that even with just a little bit of common language you can really connect with people. We jumped in the taxi, had a snooze and weren’t frozen to death, and arrived safely back at Caesar at midnight. We set up the tent (sodden since there’s definitely a hole in the cover… glad we stored the mattress in the boot while we were away… and got some shut eye.

In the morning we were awoken at 5:45am by the sound of a very busy border! The market sellers were pulling their carts from one country to the other, saying hello to us and marvelling as we put away the tent – it’s like magic to most people!

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Brekkie just inside Cambodia

We headed to the customs hut by 6:40am and the junior man checked over our papers and sent us a ‘1km walk’ to the border customs office where we needed to get a customs import paper. He said the staff would be ready by 7:30am, which gave us plenty of time to walk over. Well, 1km was in fact 2km, but there was no rush as the admin guy didn’t arrive until 8:30am and then he took an hour and a half to fill it out. Then we waited half an hour for the senior to arrive and then even longer to stamp and sign it, and a further half an hour for the accountant to process it. The customs paper cost $15 but since we didn’t have change they let us pay just $10. By 11:15am, we were finally able to go back to the border!

By that stage we were glad not to have chosen to take a bus as we would never have been able to process all of this customs paperwork in the late evening.

The guys back at the border gave the documents a quick once over and let us pass – wishing us well! We can’t quite believe how long it took, but by 11:30am, 70 hours after first arriving at the border, Caesar was free to go!

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We’re in!

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“The cows looks like rabbits!” – Amy

28/09/16

Stats:
Days on the road: 170
Kilometres covered: 32,394km
Countries visited: 15

Having arrived in Thailand from Laos on the 15th September, we headed into Ubon Ratchathani city with Dave and his lawyer Maya where we grabbed a cuppa before their flight back to Bangkok. Having got to know Dave off the HUBB, it was lovely to chat, get to know him better and discuss our respective journeys. Dave and his wife Les actually did quite a similar route to us in their ex-prison truck Plodd, so it was great to compare notes!

We headed to the Bliss hotel in town, where Caesar got his first taste of CCTV secure parking since Germany! Very posh! It was a lovely hotel, very new, clean and modern, all for a pretty cheap price too. It was like night and day in comparison to Laos. Lucky it was a nice spot, as Will’s sickness bug made a return that afternoon and we ended up staying in Ubon for 2 nights while he recovered. By now the sickness was wearing thin on him and you could really see he was suffering. I took up the role of nurse again and busied myself finding him water, loo roll and gentle food for his poor tum. When he got some sleep on the afternoon of the 16th I plucked up the courage to go to the gym for the first time in 5 months (horrible!) and then cycled up to the local Wat. When I arrived, they were chanting and it was absolutely pretty magical to be there and listen to the ceremony. That evening we experienced our first ‘silent storm’ as I called it, with lightning lighting up the clouds, but no thunder and no rain. It was like nothing we’d ever seen, with the clouds lit up but no visible lightning bolts, and no noise at all. Will described it as a silent disco in the sky! (We were later told by Mick, Will’s dad, that this is obviously sheet lightning… Maybe we were both a bit slow that evening!). It was rather impressive to watch from the balcony and nice for Will to get some fresh air after so long stuck in the hotel.


Rehydration sachets thankfully did the trick and by the morning of the 17th, Will was feeling a bit better and could face getting back on the road. After touring the shopping centre to find a supermarket (neither of those concepts existed in Laos! Very exciting!) we drove west, headed for the lake beyond Khon Kaen. Being back on our side of the road was bizarre and brilliant at the same time, we admired the developed towns and made our comparisons, as we always do in a new country, with the preceding country. Well, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that Thailand is vastly more developed than Laos, with dual carriageways, traffic lights, pedestrian crossings and cash & carries. It was rather impressive, although we strangely prefer the ramshackle huts on stilts and the unmistakable scent of rice paddies in Laos! The Thais also hang portraits of senior monks and of the King and Queen, who are really well respected in Thailand. These portraits are everywhere, including street corners (not often you see a Queen on the street corner) and in hotels, restaurants and shops.

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The beloved King Bhumibol and his wife, Queen Sirikit

There are far fewer dogs here, and those we’ve seen often have collars! It’s almost as though someone owns them, a concept which hasn’t really existed… since Kazakhstan?? They still have water buffalo here, but their cows are a little different. The second I saw one I made a note to take a photo when I came close to one as they have ears like a lop-eared rabbit! Their throats sag like a pelican’s, making it look almost like a beard, and their skulls were boney – protruding and making their heads look like that of an old man. Their bodies were normal, though. I suppose there was enough ‘weird’ in their head and neck that their body got let off the hook!

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Cows with their lop-ears and wobbly necks.

We eventually arrived at our campsite at Nam Phong National Park at 6pm. We were greeted by the nice gent who was in charge of the park gate, and set up our little home. It felt like a long time since we’d camped back on Don Khong in Laos, and it was nice to relax outside. We shared our last BeerLao and cooked chicken fajitas, joined by a rather impressive frog! It was a beautiful clear night and we could admire the almost full moon – it had been the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival just 2 days before and the moon was still shining brightly. After the longest game of Rummikub ever (I won, which never happens – Will must still be sick) we headed for bed, deciding to get on the road early in the morning to get to Sukhothai (5-6 hours drive away) at a reasonable hour. The only hiccup was a 20 minute conversation over why the tent and even the mattress was so wet when we hadn’t used it for days??

It was lucky we’d set the alarm for 6am, as we awoke to thunder, which naturally when it’s the rainy season is never a good sign. Luckily the rain hadn’t started yet, but the clouds were moving in rapidly so we quickly got to work putting away the tent – there is nothing worse than putting the tent away wet. Consider it like accidentally leaving a sky light in your bedroom open during a storm, and the next time you get into bed you find it to be rather unpleasantly soggy. Will quickly topped up the transfer box (still dribbling since the idiots at ARB in Mongolia overfilled it) while I made coffee, and he managed to have his camp shower in his undies just before the rain started. By the time I was under the shower (outside, in case that wasn’t clear) it was TIPPING it down, and I really mean that. Will got dressed in the back of the car while my camp shower was getting more and more ‘natural’ shall we say… As the rain increased the solar shower bag became rather redundant! I stood letting the rain rinse the soap out of my hair. Overlanding is so glamorous sometimes, but at least my clothes got a free wash! I jumped in the back and got as dry as possible – getting most of our stuff soaked in the process.

We set off in the rain, with a friendly farewell from the gate man (South East Asians are seriously smiley). The road to Sukhothai was long but interesting – passing through towns (nice local villages aren’t so much of a thing here, which is something I miss from Laos already) and winding through the mountains near Nam Nao national park. We passed through an area with wild elephants and searched the woods by the side of the road intently for signs of Nelly and Dumbo, but to no avail. As we arrived in Sukhothai by mid-afternoon we had enough time to find a guesthouse (we opted for At Home Guesthouse in New Sukhothai, since the historical area was a bit too pricey for us!) – our hosts had established a guesthouse in their family home, so you really felt ‘at home’ with them. They pointed out some of the best spots to visit (Sukhothai has 70+ different temples, stupas and chedis, so it was good to get a shortlist!). Sukhothai is split into 3 main areas – north, west and central – so on this first afternoon we headed to the north, taking in Wat Si Chum and Wat Phra Phai Luang. The government and various art, architecture and history bodies are currently in the process of restoring a couple of the city’s Wats (temples) and other historical sights to their former glory. The work on Wat Si Chum is already underway, with the towers and colonnades being rebuilt. For the time being, the place is somewhat more “open plan” than initially intended since the roof fell down, but this means that the impressive statue of Buddha inside, with fingers beautifully painted gold, is currently plain to see from the outside of the temple.


That evening we had more Chang Beer, green curry (listed as not spicy, but definitely was spicy, I was brave!) and sweet and sour pork, and relaxed at the guesthouse. Upon closer inspection in the morning, it turned out we were sharing our room with Jerry the mouse, which seemed to come as no surprise to the owner when I told him… We drove into town and hired bikes, trundling around the central historical park and the western area of the city, and the many wats, stupas, chedis and Buddha statues there – too many to name, I can assure you!

With an acute bout of templitis, we made a sandwich in Caesar (first homemade sarnie since the Altai, and my God was it good to have cheddar cheese back in our lives! This was nothing short of a lavish purchase at £3 for a tiny lump of Scottish cheddar..!) and headed along the 3 hour drive to the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre (TECC). ELEPHANTS!!! We knew from iOverlander that there was a formal campsite at the TECC (read: flat area near toilets) so we headed to there. Upon arrival despite it even featuring on the map of the TECC, it turned out that over the rainy season it had been somewhat neglected. It was totally overgrown and certainly resembled a jungle more than a camping spot! Oh dear! Plan B! We were lucky to find a security guard at the information centre in the TECC who let us camp outside the restaurant and use their toilets, showers and wifi for free – it was practically a proper job campsite but free of charge!

We slept well and made our way up to the centre in the morning, both very excited about the elephants! The centre has a hospital attached and seems, from what we’ve read and seen on our day there, to be very conscious about protecting these animals, ensuring their health and safety, and giving them a happy life. The mahouts (elephant trainers and riders) look after their elephants carefully, bathing them 2-3 times per day and checking them for injuries. If there is anything wrong with them, they take them up to the hospital. Our day started with watching the elephants bathe in the massive pool – this involved the mahouts climbing on the older elephants and scrubbing them, whilst the mahouts with the younger elephants kept well out of the way while the babies played around in the water, apparently trying to do forward rolls! Next we watched the ‘elephant show’ where they demonstrate the skills that traditionally brought mahouts and elephants together. In the past, Thai people used elephants for logging – they would pull, roll and lift logs for them sometimes solo, and sometimes with the help of other elephants! It was quite impressive to see elephants work as a team! We also saw some other more circus-like tricks, picking up things like hats and sticks that the mahouts dropped and returning them – kind of like elephant ‘fetch’ – and even painting pictures!

We explored the jungle on elephant-back next, crossing through deep water (too deep even for Caesar!) and taking a stroll through the jungle. We questioned whether an elephant might be a better overland ‘vehicle’ than a Defender – that is until we found out they eat 200-300kg of food daily and drink 200 litres of water! It would be a nightmare finding a toilet often enough! Finally we wandered up to the elephant dung paper factory, where (if you didn’t guess already) they make paper from elephant poo! The paper is pretty good and the best news is that elephant poo doesn’t really smell, so it’s a good system!


We drove on to Chiang Mai that afternoon where we would stay with Andrea and Klaus Gattringer, ‘summersun.at‘, an Austrian couple who also overlanded to Thailand and are now digital nomads in the city. Just as we arrived in Chiang Mai we were promptly pulled over by the traffic police, wanting to check our driving licence. For anyone planning this route – south east Asia largely does not recognise a national licence, so you have to get an International Drivers Permit (IDP) from your local Post Office before you set off. We merrily showed him Will’s and he was happy for us to go on our way – probably a little disappointed we had one! We later learnt they’re cracking down on foreigners driving without the IDP, and are charging them a pretty penny if they’re found without them – the worst part being that the bike rental places don’t even check you have this vital piece of paperwork!

We had a fantastic 3 nights with them, drinking until the early hours, eating some seriously good food, visiting a 3D museum called Art in Paradise and finally trying out Asian karaoke!

We even went to a ladyboy show at the Chiang Mai Cabaret, which had been on our list of must-sees in Thailand. Will was getting pretty nervous about the whole thing once Klaus, Andrea and their friend Thijs were talking about signing him up to be a ‘victim’ of part of the show! Alas he lucked out and didn’t have to take the rose from the arse of a ladyboy… I won’t describe any more – I’m sure your imaginations can run wild enough with that! What we both agreed was certainly that some of the ladyboys are ridiculously convincing and the show was incredible – definitely recommended! Will got lucky at the end when he got his photo taken with a Rihanna look-a-like ladyboy, who even gave him a big smooch on the cheek! I’ve got competition!!!


We were gutted to leave the guys in Chiang Mai on Friday 23rd, but it was time to continue with our Tour de Thailand! We headed to Pai up the twisting route 1095. When I say twisting, I really mean it! I’m talking 762 curves in 100 kilometres, including hairpins, and a very Laguna-Seca-esque corkscrew. Well – what better vehicle to enjoy this in than a top-heavy Defender with the turning circle of a jumbo jet and no power steering! After 3 nights of heavy drinking, it’s safe to say Will was gleeful! Well, maybe not – he was wishing he was on his Street Triple! Speaking of bikes – we finally witnessed the idiotic Chinese driving that caused the permits to come into action in Thailand. One Chinese girl pulled out across the road directly in front of us (and we’re not exactly easy to miss…) and another drove at us on the wrong side of the road! Lucky we had our wits about us!

Pai is a cool little town, pretty touristy but still maintaining its Thai charm. We took some advice from the iOverlander app and headed to Giant House by the river where it said you could camp and use their showers. Well! We arrived at midday to be greeted by two totally drunk staff members and a receptionist who couldn’t have cared less about showing us around! We quickly hoofed it and went to Oasis guesthouse which we’d spotted on TripAdvisor, where we were surprised to find ourselves being greeted by an English owner, Connor. He was really excited to meet us so we chatted whilst we (read mostly Will) did some service work and check ups on Caesar that afternoon. Our regulator had gone again, the first one since Kazakhstan (not bad given that we regularly overload the alternator!) so that was replaced and we checked over the wheel bearings and suspension for any issues. All seemed ok – touch wood – so we headed out for dinner in town and a stroll around. Connor had put a photo of Caes’ on the Pai expat group on Facebook – he obviously has a good network as we suddenly had become celebrities in the town, with any and every expat saying hello and introducing themselves, already knowing our story!

Connor gave us some good tips for where to visit the next day, so we were up early to start exploring. Our first stop was the local waterfall where, after a couple of minutes, some local kids arrived and slid down the waterfall on their bums (no mean feat… very steep and slippery) and began playing with the logs that were floating in the pools! We then tripped along to the viewpoint over the hillside which was located at the top of a very steep hill up through a Chinese village. Here we had traditional Chinese tea while we admired the view – very peaceful! The next stop was Pai Canyon, where the pathways over the canyons are so worn away by all the visitors that, frankly, it’s a massive health and safety hazard – but we enjoyed it nonetheless! I could describe these sights all day but I expect the pictures below will do them more justice!

The highlight of the day was coming across some working elephants and getting Caesar’s photo taken with them – they have got to be the coolest photos of the whole trip!!! We spent the afternoon back at Oasis guesthouse, relaxing and chatting with Connor, as I wasn’t feeling too sharp that day. Every so often we have our “slow” days, a reminder that we have been on the road for a pretty long time; overlanding is by no means a holiday and everyone needs time off sometimes!

The next day it was time to head off from Pai. We were really gutted to leave Oasis as Connor had been such a good host to us, truly welcoming and made so much time for us. His last master stroke was recommending a good place for breakfast – they served a hearty Full English brekkie with really decent sausages and Twinings English Breakfast Tea! With milk!! Heaven. Stuffed, we drove back down the winding road (762 curves on a full stomach… Yey!) and then up to Chiang Rai.

We stayed in the garden of a guesthouse which was beautiful, with really sweet hosts who made us feel very welcome despite speaking almost no English. We had heard mixed reviews about the town itself, but found it to be really beautiful, with a lovely market and clock tower lit up by night. We had a great time watching the local children dancing in their traditional clothes at the market, followed by a decent Indian curry and genuinely nice white wine!

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Beautiful garden camping spot in Chiang Rai!

Chiang Rai is mostly famous for the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun), which is situated 13km out of town and was built in 1997. It’s still a work in progress (slow workers this Thai lot) so there are many painters still going around adding to the decor. The place is immense and we marvelled at the outside which is covered in brilliant white paint and mirrors that sparkle in the sunshine. You walk along pathways with lucky leafs hanging from the ceiling with other visitors’ wishes written on them. Even before you go into the temple itself you start to get a feel for what’s in store – outside the fences and gates are laced with skulls, there are the hanging heads of Deadpool, Spider Man, Easy Rider and Captain Jack Sparrow… Certainly quirky! You cross a long bridge covered in dragons over a pool of beautiful fish followed by dozens of concrete hands, reaching from the ground to pull you into hell… and all of that before you even arrive at the doors to the main temple. Just as we got into the main temple the heavens opened and so we were lucky to get in in time! They shut the doors behind us and we had a look around. It’s not exactly your standard temple – sadly you’re not allowed to take photos inside but it’s worth googling: alongside the statue of Buddha and a waxwork of a monk meditating, they have paintings of Neo from The Matrix, The Twin Towers, the clown from Saw, Pikachu, Michael Jackson, and numerous superheroes… Not your normal Buddhist decor! If you’re ever in Thailand this was certainly our favourite temple, definitely worth a visit!

We then drove down to Lampang – just a way-point on the 9 hour total drive to the old capital of Ayuthaya. The road to Lampang was good but had many police checks. We figure that security is being tightened since the recent terrorist attacks, but in any event the Thai police seem nice and friendly. We had the car briefly searched at one checkpoint, but since we have nothing to hide and we have our IDPs, they let us go with a thank you and a good luck. Lampang was certainly nothing more than a stopover! It has a few Wats and a market that was closed when we visited. Suffering from more templitis than we could cope with, we opted for a night at Aroy One Baht, the local restaurant, and some paperwork (postcards, blog and Skype!). Our guesthouse host was lovely, and her husband came out to meet us the next morning to admire Caesar while I made breakfast and Will tended to the transfer box. The oil leak is getting significantly worse, we’ve gone from using 100-200ml per 500km to more like 400-500ml per 400km… Which was a bit of a s*^t since we haven’t found EP80w90 GL4 gear oil anywhere since the beginning of China! And trust me when I say we scoured many cities and petrol stations through southern China, the length of Laos and much of Thailand! Luckily I found another litre that we’d bought God-knows-when under the driver’s seat to tide us over, but we knew we now needed to stop at every petrol station until we found the right stuff.

Off we set at 8am, stopping at every petrol station we could find, waving our empty gear oil bottle at the staff… To no avail! The closest they had was engine oil (no) and gearbox oil (nope… not that either) and we were about to give up hope and were wondering what the bloody hell we’d do with an empty transfer box when we pulled into the crappiest looking petrol station we’d seen, simply on a whim. Lo and behold, they had not 1 litre of the stuff, but 12! Hurrah! With ‘wai’ gestures and ‘khop kha’ and ‘khop khun’ we skipped happily back to the car. They must have thought we were a little odd…

We arrived at a guesthouse in Ayutthaya with a beautiful garden, but despite having the perfect setting for it, the little old lady wasn’t keen to let us camp. In the end we opted for a room there – it was initially a bit of a shame but as a big storm came later we figured we’d probably sleep better inside anyway. We took a stroll around town trying to find a phone shop for Will – his phone has finally and spectacularly given up the ghost having been limping ever since he got a screen replacement in Ulaanbaatar, so he needed some kind of replacement. Eventually we gave up and went around the night market by the river. Nothing spectacular – like every other night market, but a good place to pass the time in a bit of a ‘meh’ town!

Ayutthaya became the capital of Siam in the 1300s and was a hub for trading as it lies between 3 main rivers. The city itself is on an island and while it is a bit rough around the edges, the historical parts are still quite beautiful, with ruins of the old wats, chedis and stupas in the historical centre. The next day we visited a couple including Wat Si Sanphet. We noticed there are a lot more scabby looking dogs here in Ayutthaya, and had been warned off walking near them at night – they tend to go around in packs and we don’t fancy finding out if they’re friendly or not. Lao and Thai dogs seem to be pretty chilled in the daytime (one lady was happily feeding them at Wat Si Sanphet) but they do change at night and seem to get a lot more territorial and yappy.

It was then time to do battle with a shopping mall and find a replacement for Will’s phone. A couple of hours passed of bartering, comparing, contemplating…. Honestly, I thought it was supposed to be women who were a pain to take shopping! In the end he came out with a pretty good deal on a new Galaxy S7 with a free Samsung tablet (God knows what, you can’t even buy it in England…). Let’s hope the phone actually works when we get back to Blighty!

On we drove to Pak Chong in the beating sun – this has got to be the hottest it’s been since China – to begin what will hopefully be a slightly more outdoorsy, countrysidey, relaxing part of our Tour de Thailand. I for one need no more temples for a while!

“You need copies, copies and more copies. Of everything.” – Thai lawyer at the border

Border crossing Pakse, Laos – Chong Mek, Thailand

15/09/16

Stats:
Days on the road: 157
Kilometres covered: 29,868km
Countries visited: 15

We left Pakse Hotel at around 10:15am on Thursday 15th September, headed for the Thai border at Chong Mek. We exchanged the last of our Lao kip in Pakse at one of the many foreign exchange places in the town. That was a mistake – you need to keep 20,000 kip for the toll just after Pakse. They accepted Thai baht though, giving us change in kip.
It takes about 50 minutes to drive to Chong Mek. When you arrive at the border, the first check point is for your vehicle. Hand over your green customs paper you received on arrival in Laos. Then head on to the building further along with a green roof. There is also a toilet here that accepts kip and baht. Here, at window 4, you get your passports stamped to exit Laos.

Next, we drove up to the border and this is where we met Dave from Plodd Stop and his lawyer. They plan to get a licence to issue permits so were interested to see how the process went. The lady at this final checkpoint out of Laos kept asking us for a stamp for the car, and she sent us back to window number 2 at the green roof building. We had rather a confusing time back at window number 2, asking the man there whether there was something he could stamp for us. The answer seemed to be “I haven’t a clue what you’re asking for” (in Lao… not our strongest language!) and eventually I went back to the checkpoint to clarify what they wanted. A more senior man came and explained it was fine, nothing else was needed and we could pass into Thailand, meanwhile Will found a senior man at window 2 who also confirmed we didn’t need anything further – good! Smooth. Dave then explained this had happened to him before, and eventually they just get bored and let you through.

Chong Mek Lao-Thai border4_Arno Maierbrugger

We then started customs and immigration for Thailand. Mrs Thip, our Thai permit agent, was not meeting us, but Dave and his lawyer were able to help with translations and get us through. Immigration is the first booth and customs is the second booth. Only the customs booth wanted to see our permit. Customs looked briefly in the car – mostly in the fridge with a glance in the front. We had to provide frankly a crazy amount of copies of stuff to both immigration and customs.
What they requested is as follows:
– car registration 2 copies
– Will’s passport (as he’s the registered owner) 2 copies
– Thai permit 1 copy
– Thai car insurance 2 copies of each page

Copies can be made at the border if you need then – 2 Thai baht per page (but you’ll also pay for the bad copies they make, or the surplus copies they make, so bring extra cash or do your copies before the border.)

You will pay 200 Thai baht as a processing fee… What for we don’t know – I suspect a well-deserved Chang beer or two at home time!

Passport control is on the right hand side next to the car processing area. Make sure you get an arrival/departure card there, they will staple the departure card into your passport next to your visa. You will need this to exit (duh) but also to register in hotels and guesthouses in Thailand.

Eventually you can go! It is a long process for them to look over your car insurance and permit, and to process customs papers. Make sure you keep the two pieces of paper that customs give you. You’re also supposed to display your permit in your windscreen, but in reality as it’s an A4 page, it’s not terribly practical unless you don’t mind not being able to see the road! Just keep it to hand – in reality the Thai police have no idea that you need a permit!!!

Welcome to Thailand – and to the correct side of the road! 🙂

Time to cross: 2 hours (of which 1 hour of faffing asking for a stamp we never got and getting some photocopies!)

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Appreciate this looks like we’re driving on the right hand side of the road – that’s a slip road to our left!!! Promise!

“Insert toilet joke here.” – Amy

14/09/16

Stats:
Days on the road: 156
Kilometres covered: 29,820km
Countries visited: 14

Today’s Special Stats:
Sickness bugs: 1 (and that’s pretty good going if you ask us!)
Bum and poo puns: too many to count
Speeding tickets: 1

The next morning we set off from Thakek to Pakse, a couple of hundred kilometres south down Route 13. It was the longest drive we’d done for yonks and it was great to be back on the road and in the comfort of Caesar!

This particular section of Route 13 skirted down the Thai border, and it was lovely to see the locals in their villages, although driving through Lao villages and towns is not without its perils! Aside from the locals overloading their scooters with a shop-load of goods, a family of five and the odd pig or chicken… Laos wins the award for dumbest animals! We’ve mentioned since Kazakhstan that farmers don’t bother to fence in their cattle, goats, chickens, camels, sheep, horses, pigs or indeed water buffalo. They roam about with the dogs and cats, generally making a nuisance of themselves. Now, in Kazakhstan and Mongolia, by and large the horses, camels and other assorted farm animals were pretty slow buggers, mostly standing still in one spot and allowing you to pick a line around them. Granted, they usually enjoyed picking the most inconvenient spot in the road, but at least they weren’t a moving target. Laos is slightly different. Chickens have clearly been watching Chicken Run and taking some advice from Usain Bolt – diving across the road like lunatics, often followed by a trail of unsuspecting chicks. Meanwhile dogs throw themselves in front of your wheels in packs, meaning you have no chance to swerve around Buster, lest you hit Fido or his pal Buttercup, the idiot cow who’s decided that the road, whilst offering no grass for snacking, offers far more entertainment than the perfectly good verge next to it. You find yourself stopped still in a stand off with the local zoo whilst the villagers watch on in amusement. So with all of this, the last thing you want to find is a herd of water buffalo wandering along the road. At least these guys aren’t easily spooked so generally act as a predictable, albeit still moving, target. Times like these we’re glad to have a bull bar. That all being said, we’re proud to say that until almost 5 months into our journey, we’d never picked off anyone’s livestock (only killing two blackbirds on the bull bar and roll cage respectively, and having two very uncomfortably near misses with dogs in Russia). Until that day. We think. We heard a definite squawk and a banging noise, but with no body found (and trust me, we even checked the underside of Caesar in case he was roasting the poor blighter on his exhaust) we’re still able to sleep at night.

Pakse is a relatively big town in Laos terms, with a major border crossing into Thailand just half an hour to the west. We stopped by a couple of guesthouses looking for somewhere we might be able to camp in Caesar in their gardens, but no luck. We settled for Alisa Guesthouse which, in the end, turned out to be a good choice – it even had aircon which pleased Will no end! Pakse had a supermarket and we even picked up a Little Tree air freshener to treat Caesar – we’re too kind to him really. On our return to the guesthouse we found an American guy admiring Caesar. He nearly fell over when we told him where we’d driven from – it’s funny now we’re in tourist territory, somehow people can’t fathom what we’re doing, and why we didn’t just get a plane! After dinner in town we had an early night – I’m pretty sure I’m somehow still tired from China, but Will thinks I’m just getting old.

In the morning after breakfast we made our way down south towards Si Phan Don, or 4000 islands, a group of sand bars, islets and islands in the Mekong between Laos and Cambodia. During the rainy season the Mekong around Si Phan Don increases to an impressive breadth of 14km, the river’s widest reach along its 4350km journey from the Tibetan Plateau to the South China Sea. Famous for its Irawaddy dolphins (I bloody love dolphins!) it sounded like a good place to spend a few days before crossing into Thailand on the 15th September.

The road down south was beautiful, with the standard rice paddies – but also many lotus ponds and stalls on the roadside selling their seeds – just as Green in China liked to eat! On the way we stopped off for diesel at a pretty “local” looking petrol station – local in this instance equated to real petrol pumps, but distinctly basic toilets. Ok, no issue – by now we were pretty used to this! Off I trotted, watching out for the lizards lurking in the scrub, while Will monitored the lady filling the car (no one beyond Europe has managed to master our army spec filter filler and usually either completely overfills it right to the brim or stops when it jumps back for no particular reason 5 litres from the top.) With diesel filled, by now I was coming back from the loo, and Will asked how they were. I said if he wasn’t desperate, don’t go here. His reply was fairly straight forward. “I thought I needed to fart but actually it’s a definitely going to be a poo – so I’d better go now.” By now if you haven’t figured that it would – travelling overland together with your partner takes your relationship to whole new levels. High ones and low ones in usually quite equal measures. “Let’s try pretending we’re still in love and stuff” is a phrase used almost daily when this type of overshare happens. It’s usually me that constantly needs a wee, and Will rolls his eyes when I tell him so as we’re invariably miles from the next toilet. So, for Will to urgently need the loo was actually quite an unusual occurrence. He grabbed some loo roll from the car (absolutely necessary overlanding equipment – do not leave home without!) and made a careful dash for it. Upon his return to the car he announced he wasn’t too sure how the day would pan out. However, by some small miracle this bout seemed to disappear as quickly as it had appeared!

It was lucky Will was feeling better, since we were promptly pulled over for speeding – apparently they measured us driving at 65kph in a 30 limit… with not a speed camera in sight! We received two tickets of 25,000 kip each (£5 total) and were met with an awkward smile when we asked why we had two tickets – one for the station, one for his pocket we supposed!! With our first real driving ticket paid we made it to Don Khong, the largest of the islands which is conveniently attached to mainland by bridge, in the early afternoon. We explored Don Khong for a while, admiring the many water buffalo soaking in the ditches by the side of the road. We eventually stopped for lunch at a restaurant and guesthouse called Rattana, in the main town on the island, where we also met a very nice man called Pan in the tourist centre who said he could help us with parking for when we wanted to go to Don Det. We tried driving around to see more of the island but given that the rain was pouring and the roads there were heavily potholed, we felt it wise to find a spot to camp.

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Rainbow over the Mekong

We had a few supplies in the car – beer, pasta, tomato sauce and some tinned vegetables we’d been putting off since Mongolia – so we eventually picked a spot by a half-finished beach resort which was recommended on iOverlander. The rain had stopped and a rainbow had appeared, so it was turning out to be a rather nice afternoon. We parked up and admired the view from the hammock, enjoying the peace and quiet by the Mekong river front. There was no one around for a couple of hours, until eventually a well-spoken Lao lady appeared with a Lao man, and asked us if we planned to camp here – yes, we said, there was a German who’d recommended it to us. She recalled the German and the Dutch people who camped before us, although being honest she didn’t seem best pleased that word was getting around that people could just pitch up here. We apologised and offered to move on if it was a bother, but she was fine with it and wished us a good night. Dinner left a lot to be desired – literally the worst dinner we’d ever made out of the Landy, the tinned veg was horrible and we quickly realised why we’d put it off for so long! We comforted our taste buds with Beerlao and watched Shutter Island in Caesar’s Cinema.

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It’s a hard life…

The night went better for me than it did for Will. He awoke during the night grabbing his stomach, and quickly made his escape down the ladder so he didn’t disturb me. He spent a few hours sitting outside in pain, and trying to sleep on the hammock between cramps, until eventually the sun began to rise and the mosquitoes arrived. He came back to bed and told me he wasn’t well, but that he would try to sleep it off for a while. Eventually at 6am he’d had enough and wanted to get to the main town to find somewhere he could sleep and (frankly) poo. Ok, so up I got, and after a quick rinse in the camping shower to wake myself up while Will vomited in a bush, we headed to town. Remember those potholed roads I mentioned? Not so good when your tummy’s not right. We got to Rattana and politely asked for a room, which they looked nothing less than puzzled about since we’d been there the day before telling them we’d camp and then head straight to Don Det, but now it was 7am and we wanted a hotel room…?

The day went from bad to worse. Will couldn’t keep anything down, or rather it kept going too far down without stopping! I managed to read an entire Swedish crime novel that day, in between tending to Will, bringing him water, propping up the bar in the restaurant (well someone had to) and generally trying not to seem to strange to the guesthouse owners who I suppose thought we’d just had a massive argument and were ignoring each other or something. I did a lot of people watching, boat watching, dog watching, cow watching, and contemplated cleaning Caesar but it was too hot so I didn’t bother. I found cheese crackers and Oreos in the shop next to the guesthouse and brought them up to a very weak and watery boyfriend, who tried a couple only to dash to the bathroom minutes later. That’ll be a no then! By dinner he was finally upright and tried some of the plainest food on the menu, grilled chicken and chips, but alas, it wasn’t made to last either and off he trotted (trot being the operative word!) back to the room.

Overnight things improved a little, and his breakfast of jam on toast hung around a little longer. He couldn’t face another day in the hotel so we decided to pootle gently to the town on the mainland where you can get boats to Don Det. Gently was not entirely possible on these roads and Will went a little pale again, not enjoying the potholes. We eventually arrived and found Pan, the nice man from the tourist office manning his car park, where Caesar was left under a shelter – woohoo, no leaky car for the next few days! We jumped on a boat and Will put on his bravest face as we bumped over the Mekong to Don Det island. When we got there we decided to head straight for a guesthouse, and chose Mama Leuah which we’d found on TripAdvisor. Run by a German guy called Lutz, his Lao wife and his mother-in-law (who is Mama!) – this place was like a piece of paradise, Lutz was very welcoming and asked us all about our travels. Previously he had a German couple visit who had a Unimog – cue a jealous face from Will!

We grabbed lunch at Mama’s and spent the afternoon in the hammock (me) and in between the hammock and the loo (Will). By now it was safe to say he was growing tired of the sickness bug, and wanted to be able to go and have an explore. My favourite phrase of the afternoon was “I wish I could moisturise my bum hole”. You’re welcome people – I’m sure you’re pleased to be reading such literary genius as this blog.

That evening was spent with Lutz trying to find Will the best dinner for his tum and offering charcoal tablets to help. Meanwhile I finally got to try LaoLao – rice whisky customised by Lutz’s own fair hands by adding a little bit of cumin and caramelised sugar! I’m not normally one for whisky but I have to say I quite liked this! Lutz was a really nice guy, we were lucky to have found this nice spot!

In the morning we cleared Will for action and decided to rent bicycles for a loop of Don Det and Don Khon. Our journey took us along a very muddy road, past some impressive rapids called ‘Khon Falls’, over two rickety bridges (we love rickety bridges), through the rather overgrown jungle and out to the southerly tip of Don Khon where you can see Cambodia. Technically if you go out on a boat there, you have to pay a fee for entering Cambodian waters. We had our lunch there, with me whinging a tad as I was hungry and had been nibbled on by more than one hungry mozzie in the jungle! Bug spray sucks!


At our lunching spot we were able to find out more about the train line French put in in 1893 that traversed Don Det. It was built in 1893 by locals, many of whom died in the bad conditions. The aim was to build a line which would allow them to transport ships up to 60 tonnes in weight, to avoid the raging rapids at Khon Falls we’d seen earlier that day. Once the initial train line was put in, with the first 26-metre-long gunships finally arrived, loaded on to the train line and carried along Don Det, they were not able to unload them at the other end as the river was still too treacherous to cross by boat. So the workmen were order to dismantle the start of the line and use this to extend it along to Don Khon. It was finally successfully unloaded at the end of Don Khon in September 1894. It was certainly an impressive tale, and this train line continued to be used heavily until 1930 and then the construction of the road Route 13 in 1937 finally sealed its fate.

With Will still feeling ok to continue, we took the road up through the middle of Don Khon up to Tat Somphamit (aka Li Phi Falls). We finally arrived back at Mama Leuah’s just before the heavens opened and therefore spent our evening propping up the bar. For the good of his stomach Will was still t-total so in between BeerLao I got to try more LaoLao and some German whisky while Will sat looking slightly grumpy in the corner. Heartless perhaps, but someone had to do it! We finally got to ask what people actually use water buffalo for here and Lutz told us that traditionally they were used for ploughing and working the fields, but now that most farmers have small Lao tractors, the water buffalo are kept out of tradition’s sake and one might be slaughtered for a wedding, or sold if the family come into financial hardship. One water buffalo can be worth 10,000,000 kip – £1000.

The rain poured all evening, stopping only at 10pm for an hour and recommencing until 11am the next day. That pretty much wrote off any thought of kayaking to go and see the Irawaddy dolphins, so we holed up at the guesthouse, and were forced to eat and drink all day. It was truly awful, especially since Lutz had bread, ham and cheese in stock. Oh the torture!

We journeyed back to the mainland on the 14th, and headed over to South East Asia’s biggest waterfall – Khone Phapheng Falls. The falls certainly aren’t small! The highest falls reach 21 metres and the rapids beyond last for almost 10km. In comparison to Iguacu in Argentina/Brazil, it’s certainly less of a tourist spot, but in a way that was nice – there were only a couple of people visiting at the same time as us, so we had a nice peaceful wander around.

We made our way back up to Pakse where we’d stayed a few days beforehand, and as Alisa was full we headed to the Pakse Hotel, which Dave at Plodd Stop had recommended. We dined in style for the first time in a long time to celebrate our last night in beautiful Laos. Pakse Hotel has a beautiful panorama restaurant – with lovely mojitos and real steak!!! What a treat!

Laos has certainly been a stunning country with some of the most beautiful and smiley people we’ve come across. It’s definitely on the list of places to return to – we want to see it in dry season next time, though!!!

“We’ll call it Ting Tong’s Roam” – Will

07/09/16

Stats:
Days on the road: 148
Kilometres covered: 29,141km

Today’s Special Stats:
Medical attention required: 1
Torrential downpours whilst on a Chinese scooter: 5

After a lovely dinner with Rémi and Nathalie (the couple we’d met at the resort by the lake) on the evening of the 31st August, we set off the following morning to start our journey to the south of Laos. Our first destination was Buddha Park, a small park about 30km east of Vientiane packed full with statues of Buddhas and associated Buddhist characters. The quantity and variety of images on display is completely staggering. Each one has it’s own story and is completely unique. My favourite in particular was a 3 storey sculpture that you could enter and climb to reach a vantage point on the top from which the entire park could be seen. The 3 levels represent Hell, Earth and Heaven and each contains sculptures depicting the level. The park is an extremely beautiful area, in fact it’s one of the few things in and around Vientiane actually worth visiting!

In the afternoon we headed further east to reach Tad Leuk waterfall where there is actually an area designated for camping with facilities and everything! The track to the campsite was pretty rough, but no match for Caesar and it led to a beautiful site. The camp site is a slightly sloping patch of grass directly adjacent to the falls in the middle of the jungle, from the tent you can hear the crashing of the falls and the screeching of the cicadas in the jungle. We had a peaceful evening having a paddle in the falls and cooking dinner, discovering a little too late that the courgette we bought for dinner was actually a cucumber in disguise, so we found ourselves making cucumber pasta! Nevertheless it was delicious! Our only gripe was the insects, which can be expected of the jungle, however a massive swarm of minute fly-like insects took a liking to our car and made breathing particularly difficult at times and nothing we did seemed to deter them!

After dinner we enjoyed the undisturbed starlit sky of the jungle in which you can see even the faintest of stars. It’s an experience I’ve only ever seen before in Africa and it’s easy to get completely absorbed just staring at the twinkling constellations until your neck aches. Unfortunately this was ended prematurely for Amy as some particularly large moths (one of Amy’s pet hates) joined us, so she retreated to the tent. I spent a little more time outside experimenting with the camera in a vain attempt to photograph the sky, conclusively proving that I have no idea what I’m doing with a proper camera!

In the morning we awoke to the roar of the falls and dragged ourselves out of the tent to enjoy an extremely refreshing wash in the river. Washing in the crystal clear, cool water above the falls is a perfect way to wake up and is everything people dream of when they envisage overlanding! Once we were washed and packed we headed back up the track to the main road to head for Kong Lo village where you can find a 7.5km long cave that is only accessible by boat! The drive was very scenic and mostly on good roads aside from the crazy animals that jump out of no where on a regular basis! We stopped for lunch at a services and had to tackle our first Lao-only menu with little help from the exceptionally blurry pictures! We eventually came out with pork (or chicken?) egg fried rice and duck with rice and eggs, pretty good going really!

We arrived at Kong Lo village around 4pm and decided it was a little too late to be heading into the cave that day so we toured around a little bit before settling into one of the guest houses to spend the afternoon/evening sorting out blogs and bits and bobs. During dinner we were joined by a praying mantis and being the first time Amy had seen one her first reaction went something like, “will it kill me, isn’t it dangerous, let me google it… Holy shit it can fly!?”. So yes, a quick google later it was concluded they can fly but they aren’t harmful. Unless you’re and insect, in which case they are very harmful! We were actually very grateful for the entertainment of the mantis as dinner was a bit of an ordeal! We were the first to sit down and order dinner as we were already there sorting stuff on the laptop. Having perused the very large menu and come to our decisions, we tried to order but in typical Laos style, about 70% of the options (naturally including the ones we chose) weren’t available. Ok, no problem, we were used to this by now, eventually we found 2 meals that were available that we were happy with. By the time we ordered it was about 6:45pm and we were the first to order. It’s normal in Laos that dishes are served when each dish is ready, not when the food for the whole table is ready as you would expect at home. This is because they share all their food so no one has ‘their own’ dish, it’s quite a nice concept actually. So, as expected, about 20 minutes later Amy’s dish was served and I waited expectantly for mine. Being a bit peckish I nibbled on some of Amy’s noodles whilst I waited. And waited. And waited. About 20 minutes later the lady re-emerged informing us they had no rice so I said fine, I’ll just have it without, so off she scuttled into the kitchen. I found it strange that there could be no rice in Laos, and even stranger still that it had taken 40 minutes to find out! So, I continued picking at Amy’s noodles. After about an hour, 2 other tables had ordered and had started to receive their food so I sucked up my Britishness and went to the kitchen to ask where my food was? “Ok.” came the response. Right, so, glad that’s cleared up, back to the table. By 8:30pm, nearly 2 hours after I ordered and 2 other tables had been served and eaten I went back to the kitchen to ask again to be told that I was second in the queue, which is funny because I distinctly remembered being first in the queue 2 hours before! Eventually, just before 9pm, over 2 hours after I ordered, my curried chicken arrived… with rice?! I’d love to say it was delicious and worth the wait but it wasn’t, not by a long shot!

By the time we had eaten it was getting late so we packed up and headed to bed. We were awoken from our snoozing the next morning by the fan turning off. We hadn’t turned it off so we concluded that there must be a power cut. Knowing that no power meant no hot water we decided to doze a bit longer to see if it came back, it didn’t. A cold shower later and we headed downstairs where they had prepared something resembling breakfast even without power! With full bellies we hopped into Caesar and trundled 1km up the broken road towards Kong Lor cave. We parked up in a slightly flooded car park, bought our tickets for the park and headed down a slippery track to find the boat pavilion. After a short and very muddy walk we arrived at the boat house and bought our tickets for a trip into the cave. Without delay the ticket man introduced us to our captain and co-pilot (his 8 year old son) who handed us life jackets to make sure we stayed out of harm’s way. Once we were safely in our protective vests our trusty pilot led us down to the river’s edge where the boats awaited and I promptly walked into a sign. It was a rather pointy sign which ironically said ‘Embarkation Point’ and I quickly felt that familiar warm trickle through my hair that meant bad news. Amy is used to me walking into things so she is constantly telling me to mind my head, however on this occasion she only told me to mind my head sarcastically after hearing the clang. It wasn’t until she turned around a few moments later that she realised this wasn’t a normal clang. I have a bit of past experience with head wounds so I knew that if there was a little blood to start with, there was a lot more about to follow shortly. Sure enough, soon after I sat down the blood started to pour and Amy ran off to try and find some tissue or something nearby to stem the flow. It’s worth mentioning at this point that Amy really doesn’t like blood, especially not when she can see it pouring from a wound. After discovering that the ticket man only spoke enough English to sell tickets, didn’t appear to have a first aid kit and that the toilets had no paper Amy returned empty handed to where the skipper’s son was helping clean the cut with my drinking water. Luckily some other tourists were just finishing their trip and kindly donated some tissues, enough to get me back to the car where we had a proper first aid kit. We hot-footed it back over the muddy path to the flooded car park where Caesar awaited. Amy hopped in the back and grabbed the first aid kit to see what we had in the way of bandages, but we didn’t know yet how bad it was or whether it needed stitches. I was really hoping it didn’t as we were in the middle of no where. I asked Amy to have a look to see how bad it was, after some persuasion she agreed so I parted my hair, she took a quick glance, made an odd noise and looked away. Not a good start. Eventually I got her to take a photo so I could see and we both agreed it probably needed stitches. This whole ordeal seemed to be taking it’s toll on Amy though who had broken out in a sweat and was looking worse than me! After a while of rummaging through the first aid kit the car park attendant came over and asked if we needed to go to the clinic, “how far?” I asked not wanting to have to leave Caesar and travel 100km to get a couple of stitches. It turned out it was a whole 200m away, what luck! He offered to drive us, so while I continued to stem the flow I asked Amy to pack up the kit and take it with us… Amy?…Amy?… It turns out Amy was crouched on the floor with her head between her legs trying not to pass out and create 2 patients! Eventually through a combination of my free hand and Amy fighting through the enveloping black cloud we managed to get us and the first aid kit into the car. By the time we reached the clinic Amy was just about conscious and covered in a cold sweat, honestly if it wasn’t for all the blood I’m pretty sure the friendly clinician/doctor/nurse/not-sure-what who greeted us would’ve taken the wrong person in! He got me to lie on the bed for an examination and Amy sat on a chair across the room with her head between her knees with the first aid kit to hand. The clinic was pretty sparse with relatively empty cupboards and in a developing country such as Laos you have to be seriously careful they aren’t reusing medical equipment. After a scan of our relatively well equipped first aid kit we realised we didn’t actually have any of the equipment needed for stitches! As I was stuck on a bed with blood dripping down my face this job was left to a rather worse for wear Amy. The doc could see we were uneasy about it so he kindly opened every instrument and piece of equipment under Amy’s nose to show it was sterile; whilst this was extremely helpful and reassuring it did nothing for Amy’s condition! He even checked with Amy if he could cut my hair! He was no Toni and Guy but he trimmed away a little hair and put in a couple of stitches to close the cut and sent me on my merry way with an assortment of pills that I didn’t really understand what they were or how to take, so I messaged Dr. Caz, a friend from home, who quickly cleared it up! Thank you! The price for all this medical attention, a whole £10.90 and about a year of Amy’s life.

With my head in a bandage and after Amy had a sit down and a sugary drink we decided to continue with our day. Amy tried to explain to me what it’s like to pass out, I’ve now had a total of 14 stitches in my head but I’ve never been unconscious. Apparently you feel better if you just let it happen, but given the circumstances she made herself stay responsive and as a consequence ended up looking like a sack of shit (her words not mine!). When Amy was feeling strong enough we trekked the muddy path to the boat house once again and boarded a boat, the boat man had even moved the boat out the way of the sign this time!

Kong Lor cave is an amazing experience – first you are paddled a short distance upstream across some minor rapids on a very leaky boat, which takes you to the entrance of the cave. At the entrance you climb over a few rocks to bypass the major rapids at the entrance and board a motorised boat. The motorboat takes you upstream through a 7.5km long pitch black cave, stopping at an underground beach halfway so you can walk a section and see more detail. We brought our head-torches along so we could see, they did a decent job but I feel like your enjoyment could be proportional to how powerful your torch is! Nevertheless it’s an amazing site passing through cathedral-sized caverns full of stalagmites and stalactites, with crystals covering the wall and plenty of bats! We were lucky as we were the only ones there at that time so the only noise was the sound of the motor thumping away behind us. As you exit the other end of the cave you enter the jungle and a small village, clearly prepared for the tourists with food and drinks stalls. We stopped for a drink in the village, if you are here for longer it’s possible to do a homestay but we were planning to reach Thakek in the afternoon so we just sipped our exotic fruit Fanta (disgusting!) then headed back to the boat for the return journey. Being downstream the return was much quicker but equally enjoyable. It’s a great experience and I was very glad my little bump didn’t stop us doing it!

We headed off to Thakek a little later than planned, but if we were quick we would still make it before nightfall. We tend to make a point of not driving at night, but in Laos this is especially important as there are potholes, animals and people all across the road and it only gets worse at night! As neither of us had a great morning I took up the driving to start with, but I handed over to Amy as, unsurprisingly, I had developed a little headache. We arrived at Thakek Travel Lodge (not the UK kind of Travel Lodge!) just as the sun was setting and parked up under their tall garage roofs where the Landy might actually stay dry inside! We sat down for dinner and met some other travellers that had just completed ‘the loop’, an infamous 3 day bike tour around the area heading to the Vietnamese border, up to Kong Lor cave and back down the Thai border with many sights along the way. Although this was perfectly possible in Caesar, I had a bike craving and Amy was open to trying out a bike, unfortunately with fresh sewing in my scalp I would have to wait at least a day for it to scab over before I could put on a helmet!

We spent the next day, Sunday 4th September, running some errands, healing head wounds and having a long conversation with out Thai travel agent about the ins and outs of our permit request. Amy has done a separate blog detailing this process for anyone that is interested. The lodge let us camp under the cover of the garage that second night, paying only for the showers we had, dinners we ate and beers we drank. It was a really nice place to camp, especially knowing we wouldn’t have to put a wet tent away the following day!

In the morning we decided to investigate the ‘bikes’ (scooters) available at Mr Ku’s (recently renamed ‘Pokemon’ for some inexplicable reason) bike rental at the Travel Lodge. I had a nip around on a stunning semi-automatic piece of Chinese ‘engineering’ and Amy tried out a fully automatic Honda scooter. I wobbled around for a bit but managed to get the hang of it. Unfortunately Amy wasn’t having the same experience, she couldn’t really get her head around… anything, particularly that you twist backwards to go, apparently this is counter-intuitive! She quickly decided riding was not for her so we had them reconfigure the Chinese stallion to accommodate both of us. We christened it ‘ Ting Tong’ as Amy was disappointed not to meet a Chinese person with this name and so ‘Ting Tong’s Roam’ came to be.

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Team Ting Tong

We headed east to start the route anti-clockwise, initially heading for Tham Pha cave (aka Buddha cave). Little did we know we were letting ourselves in for a baptism of fire! The road leading to the cave was a sodden clay-dirt track, negotiating this on a scooter would be a bad idea, negotiating it two up on a Chinese ‘scooter’ with heavily worn tyres is just stupid. So off we went, slowly slipping and sliding all over the place. We nearly dropped it a couple of times as the back wheel spun around on the clay but I managed to keep it at 45 degrees whilst Amy jumped off, although unfortunately the first time a hidden piece of exhaust managed to brand a piece of my leg! By the time we arrived at the cave our shoes and legs were sodden and thick with mud and we were completely exhausted and trying not to think about the return journey!

The discovery of the Buddha cave is a strange story, in short a local farmer relatively recently saw bats flying into and out of a cave some meters up a cliff face so decided to climb up to try and catch them to eat. What he found when he entered was not only bats, but over 200 previously unknown statues of Buddha, some of them over 1m tall! At first he thought he was imagining it so he didn’t tell anyone for over a week. Eventually he came clean and the cave is now guarded 24/7 by the local villagers. This cave is used for meditation and prayer so Amy donned a traditional Lao skirt and we took a look around, meeting the locals inside and saying ‘sabaidee’ to them. It was so incredible and we asked ourselves how anyone could have ‘lost’ this place!

After a slightly more successful return journey across the clay we reached the tarmac, dreading that all the other sites would be equally treacherous. Luckily the next cave was only just up the tarmac road, but easily missed. We stopped next to a sign for the cave that pointed to nowhere. Clearly spotting our confusion a local boat-man leapt to his feet and explained that it was another river cave, he could take us in his boat. We left Ting Tong behind and headed into the cave with our boat-man, it’s no where near as long as Kong Lor but equally as enjoyable. We were led through the cave and paused floating on the water at the exit, the driver showed us where people came to climb the cliffs, a daunting prospect that Amy’s brother would no doubt revel in! It was a truly peaceful and picturesque spot as we were the only ones there, it was almost a shame to return to dry land.

We continued up the tarmac road to Tham Nang Aen cave, another extra long cave only discovered and opened to the public last year. We stopped for a spot of lunch before heading in. This cave was a little frustrating, it’s an impressive cave but the tourist infrastructure is almost overdone. The entrance to the cave has been modified with concrete to allow walking access and create a false waterfall and the inside is lit up in all sorts of colours of light. In my opinion it took away from the natural beauty of it. There are also boat trips that go much deeper into the cave, however they weren’t available when we visited, presumably because the water level is too high in the rainy season.

We headed off from Tham Nang Aen aiming to reach Sabaidee Guesthouse just north of Nakai, an 80 kilometre ride but it came well recommended. We had actually underestimated this journey as the map applied the phrase ‘not to scale’ very liberally. On some sections an inch was 1km, on others 100km. We pootled up the stunning mountain roads along some sections that had me wishing for my Triumph and not that wobbly Chinese tat, but we were making great time… until the heavens opened. With not enough time to spare before nightfall to wait it out, we donned our rain coats. Unfortunately for me it was in vain, the rain was relentless and heavy and continued until every item of my clothing was sodden. Amy fared much better, perhaps because her coat was better, but I suspect it was because I was acting as a human shield to the rain. Luckily we had taken precautions to ensure all our luggage was watertight! We stopped 3 times along the route to regain feeling in our bums but eventually, a few hours later, we arrived at Sabaidee Guesthouse to a warm welcome. If we’re honest by this point we were already missing Caesar a little bit!

Sabaidee is a lovely guesthouse near Tha Lang village, north of Nakai. We got a little cabin there where I could hang up my wet clothes and our shoes! We had dinner there, catching up with a French couple who had been at Travel Lodge in Thakhek when we’d arrived there. They’d driven the opposite way around the loop so we compared experiences over a excellent dinner of chicken BBQ skewers and a burger (very traditional Laos food, we promise!). The staff were lovely and the owner was extra friendly, highly recommended!

The next day we opted for a lazy morning and set off after a fine breakfast at Sabaidee. We met the quirky owner again, known as Mr Sabaidee, who admired photos of Caesar and asked us to return with the Landy next time! Sabaidee is definitely the kind of place we could have stayed on had we more time. On the normal ‘loop’ people would head to Kong Lor cave on the second day, however as we had already seen it (and have the scars to show for it) we decided to head to the Vietnamese border as we were told the road is beautiful. It didn’t disappoint. The whole road is incredibly scenic, winding through the jungle and mountains with stunning views all around. Shortly before the border the rain hit again, but we wouldn’t be stopped! We pushed through the rain, had the quickest of photos at the border, then headed back down the mountain as fast as possible to outrun the rain!

We noticed along this route that Ting Tong’s fuel tank is deceptive, it will stay reading full for 100km, then reach half full within 20km and empty not long after. This led to a concerning stretch along a mountain road devoid of fuel stations with the needle pointing at empty and no fuel in sight. Eventually we gave up and stopped at a small home on the edge of a village to ask for fuel before we ran out. Amy jumped off and asked an old lady “Sabaidee, petrol? Benzine?” she called inside and out came a younger lady armed with an empty LaoLao bottle and a length of tube. Win! We’d stumbled upon the local petrol station! She siphoned us a litre of petrol from what appeared to be an old cooking oil vat, and we asked the price. Petrol here is more expensive than diesel, with diesel at 6600 kip per litre and petrol at 7400. This lady asked for 10,000kip for our litre, which -although more like English prices- we felt was fair given that she’d had to lug it here from god knows where!

We continued through the town of Laksao where we stopped for lunch, which left a bit to be desired. There isn’t really anything to do in Laksao so we were happy to leave it behind and head for Koun Kham to find a guesthouse. By this point to say out arses were numb would be a wild understatement. They had gone beyond numb to a point where it’s a constant ache. Caesar where are you? We’re sorry. We won’t ever leave you behind again! We took every opportunity to stop at view points of which there were a few boasting terrific views of the karst landscape. We also stopped at a bridge where you could see the local fishing boats, but these are no ordinary boats, they are created from the shells of American bombs dropped on Laos during the secret war. The ingenuity of these people is astounding!

We stopped at Sanhak guesthouse around 5pm, there weren’t many options around the town but I think we lucked out. The hosts were very friendly, the rooms were clean and the breakfast pancakes were amazing! They even had a foyer that we could wheel Ting Tong into to shelter him from the elements! We sat around a bit the following morning to try and let the rain pass, but it was persistent so we headed off when it dropped to a drizzle and hoped for the best. We were heading back to Thakek that day and in theory there was a waterfall to stop at on the way, however due to the continuous rain we ruled it out and just pushed on. Eventually the sun came out and we made good time, it’s much nicer without the rain but it does mean that the dogs and bugs come out. The dogs try to jump in front of you and in can be quite unnerving on a Chinese ‘scooter’ to brake and avoid a mutt at the last minute! The bugs on the other hand were unavoidable and when they got you in the face at 70km/h they seriously hurt! I suddenly understood why many of the local women ride their scooters with one arm or hand covering their face.

As we drove we saw signs as we entered several villages explaining that the UXO clearance team had visited and the villages were clear of UXOs. It was great to see that this part of Laos was safe to farm and for kids to play in! We stopped off for lunch in a small village, at a ‘restaurant’ where, since they didn’t have a menu, we tried out Google Translate. Apparently it’s not great at English-Lao, and we ended up shrugging and sending Amy into the kitchen to find noodles. After lots of nodding and a few “kop jai” we were brought two piles of mint as big as my head, an entire cabbage to share (raw – my favourite type of cabbage) and two giant bowls of noodle soup with beef and some kind of balls of meat… maybe actual balls. Amy was the first to brave the balls. It’s still unclear what we ate that day, but the fear of the unknown was too much for me and I left most of them after politely trying a couple.

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Back at base camp with our trusty steeds.

We returned to Thakek Travel Lodge and Mr. Ku’s rental later that afternoon with very sore bums, slightly damp and with a new found appreciation for Caesar! We said a tearful goodbye to Ting Tong (no doubt soon to be renamed by new owners) and had the obligatory photo shoot with Caesar. I did really enjoy riding again and besides the rain we did really enjoy our trip. However, I feel that normal backpackers probably gain a lot more from the experience than we did, as for them it’s a rare opportunity to escape the buses and find yourself alone in the middle of tiny Laotian villages. For us, travelling by car for the past  5 months, this has become the norm so I don’t think we appreciated the freedom in the same way. It is a slightly different experience travelling by bike, you are acknowledged and greeted more frequently, however during the rainy season I’ll stick to the car in future!

Thai Permit – the latest regulation from our friends in S.E. Asia!

04/09/16

Since 27th June 2016, Thailand has new rules for overlanders bringing their foreign vehicles into the Kingdom.
This blog is designed to provide fellow overlanders with as much information as we can on the permit and how to obtain one.
We should highlight that the situation with this permit is changing weekly, so you should watch the following two Facebook groups for more up to date information:
Thailand – New Regulation Affecting Overland Travellers
Overlanding Asia
– Department for Land and Transport website
To apply for a permit you must use a travel agency. There is no system in place for an individual to apply directly. At the time of writing, there were two agencies who are legally entitled to provide permits:
– Aran Sisophone (Mrs Thip)
– Phillip Gibbins

Very briefly, some key points of the permit:
– you must apply minimum 10 days before entry
– you can have up to two entries, with 30 days for each entry
– vehicle must weigh a maximum of 3.5 tonnes (according to the vehicle registration document, not the actual packed weight, as we understand it)
– you must enter and exit via the same border point
– you must provide an itinerary for your visit in Thailand
– you may have two entries maximum, lasting for 30 days maximum each (a double entry permit costs more than a single entry permit)
– if you want any exceptions to the above or the other rules in the new regulation, you must apply 30 days in advance with a full explanatory letter
Key issues for us at first: we want to ship Caesar from Bangkok, so we will need to enter and exit through different ports.

As you may have read in our previous blog posts, we had a bit of a bumpy start to our permit application. Since March 2016 we’d been in touch with fellow Brit overlanders Dave and Les Goodchild, who opened Plodd Stop near Pattaya, Thailand in 2015. We’d discussed our plans with them and they kindly had kept us updated about the rumours about the permit from within Thailand. When we were in Laos, we started discussing our planned route – originally Laos to Cambodia to Thailand – when they told us that the only border from Laos to Cambodia has rather a challenging Officer who didn’t let foreign cars through from their experience. Other travellers explained he would if “financially persuaded”, but only if you have a Carnet de Passage. Now that we don’t have – our route legally and technically does not require a carnet, so we never applied for one as they can be rather costly, and in our case it should be unnecessary. We therefore asked a local tour agency who kindly asked at the border and confirmed that the only way through there without a carnet would be to ask for permission from Phnom Penh. Permission that would cost $800 USD! Wowee! There was no way we would buy into this, it certainly didn’t sound like a legit way to cross a border and we weren’t shelling out $800 to find out! Also, due to the permit system in Thailand, we weren’t able to suddenly need to change plans if it turned out they wouldn’t let us into Cambodia from Laos – it simply wasn’t possible. So our plan changed to Laos-Thailand-Cambodia-Thailand.

We had started our permit admin when we arrived in Laos from China – this was because we had expected to spend 40 days in Laos and Cambodia, therefore loads of time to apply for a permit with an exception. We had chosen to use Mrs Thip at Aran Sisophone to obtain our permit for Thailand because we’d read that she had successfully got several other overlanders over the border under the new permit system, so she came with a recommendation. We’d contacted her with our original route and after her first very helpful response she went AWOL for over a week which was a little worrying. By this point because we had discovered we needed to enter Thailand directly from Laos, we now had less than the 30 days required to apply for an exception to the permit, so we knew we were facing overstaying our visa and car documents in Laos if we hung around. At this point we tried to contact Phil Gibbins who declined to help as he was on holiday and wasn’t sure his staff could do the permits yet without supervision. Rather than have issues with a fluffed up permit from them, we subsequently hounded Mrs Thip until she eventually reappeared a couple of days later. She promised to do the permit as quickly as possible so we didn’t overstay – for which we were very thankful!

So we got to work!! Nothing like doing paperwork while you’re on ‘holiday’!
We provided the following:
– copy of Caesar’s V5C (UK vehicle registration document)
– photo of Caesar
– copies of our passports
– copies of our International Driving Permits
– itinerary for our two visits to Thailand (for guidance only)
– letter addressed to the director of the Department for Land and Transport, explaining our intentions in Thailand and the reason why we needed an exception to the permit regulations (it’s a good idea to add in there that you planned your route to include Thailand BEFORE you left home/the regulations changed).

If anyone wants to look at the format of our letter, please just send us a message.
Thip got to work on our permits and we had a couple of emails back and forth about the dates of entry/exit and ports of entry/exit. We finally had our permit through in just 2 weeks, although with a slight hiccup as she got our second entry and exit dates wrong despite our discussion. This was frustrating but actually she says that it won’t be an issue.

According to Mrs Thip’s explanation:
– the ‘valid from’ date means your earliest permitted entry date
– the ‘valid through’ date means your expected departure date
– customs give you 30 days on the border regardless of these dates
– you can stay as long as you like, as long as you do not exceed 30 days for each entry

Normally Mrs Thip meets you at the border, where you can pay her. However, for us she wasn’t able to meet us so we will have to transfer the money to her account at a bank upon arrival. We will pay 10,000 Thai baht for a double entry permit (7000 for a single entry); this includes vehicle insurance.

Good luck!

COPE, Vientiane

31/08/16

Stats:
Days on the road: 141
Kilometres covered: 28,680km

 

Ok, time for a slightly more serious blog, but one which we hope will interest our readers. On the 31st August, we set off to visit COPE (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise). COPE is a charity based in Vientiane, set up in 1997 to support the needs of UXO (unexploded ordnance) dropped by the Americans during and following the Vietnam War. They also support children and young adults suffering with Club Foot, or those injured following road traffic accidents.

A brief history and background: Laos People’s Democratic Republic was declared a neutral country during the Vietnam War and as such was not to be entered by Vietnamese or American forces. America even signed the Geneva Accord of 1962 confirming they would not enter Laos. Sadly, America failed to deliver on their promise and dropped bombs across Laos, primarily on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and various political targets in the north west region of Xieng Huang. This was a secret war that not even America’s citizens knew about. Such was the extent of their attacks, that Laos PDR is the most heavily bombed country in the world per capita. More than 580,000 bombing missions were conducted over Laos, equating to a bombing mission every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years. From 1963-1973, 2 million tonnes of ordnance were dropped on Laos, of which 30% are estimated to have never exploded. That makes 80 million “bombies” which are sitting across the country. Still live, still lethal.


The most common victims of these UXO’s today are children – 40% of those suffering from injuries or dying from explosions were not even alive during the war. COPE was set up to support the men, women and children who fall foul of these UXOs for whatever reason, to give them the necessary rehabilitation, physiotherapy, therapy, prosthesis and get them back to as normal a life as possible.

When you arrive at COPE, you have the opportunity to go into their ‘cave’ cinema to watch a variety of films around the topic of COPE and UXOs. The film we watched gave an enormous amount of information about this so-called ‘secret war’, its effects at the time and the ongoing impact of the actions of the U.S. during this period. During the war, entire villages would hide in caves in the countryside for 6 or 7 years to avoid the almost constant bombings. They said that many bombs were on a time delay, meaning they would watch them drop in the morning and have to wait for them to explode perhaps that afternoon before being able to run out to forage for food. These attacks weren’t aimed at military bases, political buildings or strategic locations. They were dropping bombs on innocent civilians in rural towns and villages who had done no crime. Once the U.S. decided to pull out of Vietnam, the situation in Laos actually worsened. The bombings across Laos increased as they needed to shed their bombs rather than take them back to base, and livestock and caves began to be targeted, seemingly like target practice. The locals said the bombs dropped “like rainfall”. One man spoke of how his wife, two daughters and over 450 people from his village were killed as a rocket was fired directly into the cave where they’d hidden for 5 years.

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Bomb with ball bearings designed to dismantle on explosion for maximum destruction.

Later you walk through a traditional home and see all of the household items that the locals will make from neutralised UXOs. Of course, these are very enterprising uses of the metal they find and the locals say it’s the strongest metal they can get their hands on, so you can understand why they do it. However, there is a big drawback. The UXO casings start to become familiar to children, they get curious when they see them lying in a rice paddy or find them when they’re playing in a field. They know that these bombs have value and so they know they can sell them to help bring in money for their families. It is for this reason that children are so often victims of explosions. Curiosity gets the better of them and despite the warnings from their parents, they will pick up bombs they find and try to crack them open – they want to take any explosives to fish with, they want the ball bearings for their slingshots, and they want to use the case to make a lamp, a knife, a spoon, and sell it to help their families. Often when victims of UXO explosions try to get to a hospital, it can take several hours to get there on the poor roads, and when they arrive there is no guarantee there will be blood and oxygen. This is often why the resulting injuries from such accidents are worse than perhaps they would be in the western world.

COPE is there to pick up the pieces after these accidents. No matter if it is a man, woman or child, they will provide them with the rehabilitation and prosthesis/prostheses that they need to get them back to as normal a life as possible. They also provide mental care like therapy and equipment to soothe conditions like phantom limb syndrome. Many villagers out in the sticks have never heard of COPE and can live for many years without the help that they need until COPE finds them or they hear about the charity through their hospital or doctors. One father we read about lived for years with severe injuries having tried to split open a bomb to harvest the explosives to use for fishing to feed his family of 6. The bomb exploded in his hands and his sons had to drag him to their boat and row him along the river to his village, before locals took him to two hospitals trying to find blood and oxygen. Due to the time it took him to get medical aid, he lost an eye, a leg and both arms. In the years following his accident, he needed his wife and children to feed, toilet, clothe and bathe him. COPE has given him not only the prostheses he needed, but also a new lease on life. He is now able to farm again, support his family and, most incredibly, is now a spokesman for ending cluster bombing, helping to sign the Convention on Cluster Munitions in 2008 on Laos’ behalf. Laos was the second country to sign this, after the hosts of the convention, Norway.


COPE also powers 97% of the country’s UXO cleaning teams, going to remote areas of Laos to make the land safe for their population. This enables villages and towns to expand the land they farm, and to ensure they have a safe place for their children to play. In 2014 alone, over 56,000 munitions were found and detonated safely by these teams. Amazingly, the U.S. has still never apologised for these bombing campaigns, and still only pay $12 million USD towards their clearance every year. This is a key reason why COPE relies on the donations of the general public and other global charities.

COPE was an extremely eye-opening experience for us both. In England (as we’ve learnt on numerous occasions during the Roam) we are simply not taught about these dark times in history. My grandfather, Harry, stood on a mine during his service in WWII and subsequently lost his leg after poor healthcare was provided to him before his return to the U.K. Upon his return to England he swam by way of rehabilitation for his legs and was given a prosthetic leg. This support allowed him to live a relatively normal life. The fact that people today, some 70 odd years later, are not able to access this type of support freely and easily is completely heart-breaking.

We spent a long time at COPE, learning as much as we could about their work. They rely on donations from normal people like you and me, and Will and I decided to donate $75. This relatively small amount of money is enough for a Laotian man, woman or child to have a new prosthetic leg. They will be able to play with their friends, harvest their crops, walk to the market, carry their baby across the village or go to school. It was the least we could do for this amazing charity and the beautiful people of Laos. Our donation is made in memory of my grandfather, Harry Harris.

If you want to find out more about COPE and their work in Laos, you can take a look at their website. Here you can read the stories of the people they’ve helped, the educational programmes they are rolling out to schools across the nation to tell children what to do if they find a mine, and the training programmes they have for Laotians to become UXO clearers, or therapists and nurses at COPE.

If this blog grabbed you, you may also be interested to find out that U.S. President Obama is currently visiting Laos, addressing the need to support Laos PDR with UXO clearance. He is the first sitting president to visit the country and there is a great feeling of hope here that things will now progress quicker for the UXO clearance in Laos, with better funding from America. Sadly though, Obama still has offered no formal apology on behalf of the USA for the bombings.
As our blogs are usually a couple of weeks late, you can always you can find out where we are right now by clicking here: https://roamingcaesar.wordpress.com/where-are-we-now/

Getting your Thai visa in Vientiane, Laos

31/08/16

Stats:
Days on the road: 141
Kilometres covered: 28,567km

Today’s special stats:
Visas obtained on the road: 3
Wheels changed: 1
Wheel bearings repaired or replaced: 3

As our permit for Thailand was still underway with Mrs Thip at Aran Sisophone, we had some days to play with and decided to spend a few of them in Vientiane generally sorting out Caesar and some of our paperwork.

We’d spotted Mike Murphy’s garage on iOverlander and, given all the good reviews from other overlanders, decided he would be a good place to give Caesar the TLC he required after all the botch jobs in Mongolia and hammering him along the highways of China (ok… at maximum 90kph but still…). By now there was a relatively long list of niggly things that we needed to look at, plus a few service aspects to carry out. He had a full bonnet to bumper examination by us and Mike, resulting in the following being carried out over two days:
– swap rear left wheel for our spare due to a massive gouge missing from the tyre
– re-grease and tighten rear right wheel bearing (let’s hope that doesn’t go south like the last one we had “fixed”)
– replace bushes on the anti-roll bar which were ruined when our damper snapped back in Mongolia (Mike actually had parts for Land Rovers!!)
– full steering and suspension check
– solder a leaking fitting on our coolant reservoir
– drain and replace coolant, followed by a successful pressure test
– drain and replace engine oil and front diff oil
– replace oil filter
– drain and replace gear box oil (and admire the metal shavings on the drain plug, uh oh…)
– greased UJs and propshaft
– tighten handbrake

As you can see, Caesar needed his couple of days in the spa and was very glad for his trip to Mike’s!

At the same time, since we were in the “big city”, we decided to apply for our Thai visas. There are mixed reports about what length of visa you can get at the border on arrival, some say 15 days and others say 30 days as the UK is in the G7. We decided to play it safe (and cheaper, frankly) and go to the consulate to apply for a visa in advance of our arrival. Open daily for applications 8:30-11:30am, the Thai consulate was conveniently located just around the corner from the garage, so we popped there with the following to start the process:
– passport
– passport copy (signed)
– two recent passport photos
– Laos visa copy (signed)
– Laos entry stamp copy (if on a different page to your visa, signed)

Any photocopies can be made for 1000 kip per page, and passport photos can also be taken at the consulate.

Upon arrival at the consulate you’re likely to be hounded by a guy who is happy to do the application for you – technically speaking you actually have to do the form yourself and it’s so simple that this would frankly be a waste of money!

The application form really is very straight forward, just bring an address for where you’re presently staying in Laos and your “guarantor” and their address in Thailand, which for us is Plodd Stop in Pattaya. I’m pretty sure this won’t be checked though, so an address in the Lonely Planet will probably suffice!

Hand in your application with the above papers and your passport, and you’ll be given a queuing number for the next day.

Return the next day 1:30-3:30pm to pick up your visa, joining a vague sort of order dictated by the electronic sign above the application window, that only we polite Brits seemed to keep to…!

Our visa is valid for entry into Thailand within the next 60 days, in theory yours should be the same.

Happy travelling!

“I draw the line at having a chicken on the table while we’re eating.” – Amy

27/08/16

Stats:
Days on the road: 137
Kilometres covered: 28,417km
Countries visited: 14

Today’s special stats:
Quickest roadside repair: 5 minutes
Pairs of flip flops worn out: 5

Having made it across the border on the 19th, we trundled along the country roads to Luang Namtha city, about an hour from the border. Luang Namtha is the capital of the region by the same name, and the name literally means “area around the river Tha”. It’s a lovely little town near a National Protected Area (NPA), or a National Park to us Brits. Our first stop was very important: PIZZA. Will had been desperate for pizza since we found a closed pizzeria in Sainshand, Mongolia… So one month later, the sight of a stone baked pizza oven was more than welcome! We enjoyed our first taste of Beerlao – the nation’s favourite drink, with 90% of the country in agreement. And at £1 for a big bottle, we were pretty keen on it too! We took a stroll along the “high street” and popped our head in to Forest Retreat tours, who offered a tour leaving the next morning. Hopefully we weren’t too blunt in our reply: “absolutely not!” After 24 days of 5am-6am starts, we needed a rest. That night we found a pleasant enough guesthouse called Zuela, where we could park Caesar off the road and get a room for £7. We more than achieved our aim of getting some shut eye, sleeping from 8pm to 8am!


It poured with rain all night and most of the next day, thanks to a storm that was hitting northern Laos, so we were met with a very soggy town and Caesar in the morning! Will’s hopes of taking a dirt bike up to a local waterfall were dashed, and as the rain continued, the next day was written off as an admin day. Time to catch up on some blogging, news, emails and… Time to plan the dreaded permit to enter Thailand and shipping to get Caesar home! Wahhh! It’s still rather up in the air as to how we’ll manage Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. Our initial plan is to cross Laos-Cambodia-Thailand, with around 40 days to cover Laos and Cambodia, however this could be tricky as we hear from the guys at Plodd Stop in Thailand that the officials at the only border of Laos-Cambodia don’t let international cars through without hefty and expensive paperwork… Investigations are ongoing!

We popped back to Forest Retreat and booked ourselves on to a two day hike and kayak tour through the jungle and along Nam Tha. The part of the river we chose was billed as “very challenging” especially given the crazy rain they’d had lately, so we were warned, warned some more and warned again about how challenging it would be. Will and I have both kayaked a lot in the past, so we classed ourselves as experienced and weren’t too worried initially about what was in store for us.

In the morning when we arrived ready for our tour, the guide and his manager both sat us down and checked and rechecked that we definitely knew how to kayak. By now, we were starting to question our own abilities! How bad could it be? Right? Our guide, Som, was a pretty cool guy and seemed at least a little bit to believe us when we said we’d white water kayaked before and knew more than just the basics.

On the way to the starting point for our trip we stopped off at the day market, admiring the fruit, veg, meats, ducklings, mushrooms… and… Hornet larvae… Which Som later told us they fry and eat! As delicious as that sounded we decided not to pick any up for our lunch!

The first day of the trip was a 4 hour hike up into the primary forest, and on the way Som showed us natural Tiger Balm and cardamon, as well as picking some ferns, sugar cane and bamboo shoots for our dinner. He told us that the locals use tiger balm for sore joints, taking the wood and wrapping it in a banana leaf and putting it on a fire before applying it to the joint. After 30 minutes he said your joint would be healed. Sounds much better than the stuff we buy in a pot in England! We had a local village man join us for the morning, and his family provided our lunch of sticky rice, chicken, tofu and beans. All served on a banana leaf, and delicious! The second part of the trip was mostly some scaremongering from Som – he told us about the poisonous spiders in the jungle, like the tiger spider, and that if you’re lucky, you might also see a King Cobra or a Banana Snake, which can kill you in minutes – get bitten by one of those and you’re a goner. He showed us a poisonous fruit which can stay in the digestive system of squirrels and kill you too! Finally he told us about a centipede that can blind you. Jungles are cool!

All but two of the log bridges had been swept away in the heavy rain, so the afternoon’s walk was longer and wetter than anticipated!

As we approached the village we walked through their rice paddies and their corn plants. We saw a small bamboo box with some offerings inside, which Som explained would be to protect the soul of someone in the village. In this village live 250 people from the Khamu ethnic minority, and their lives remain relatively traditional, although thanks to companies like Forest Retreat, they now have taps in the village and hydroelectric systems to provide energy to light their homes. Their homes are built up on stilts to protect them from bad spirits, and the rice stores were also on stilts for spirits, rain and bugs! The roofs of the buildings are made mostly of leaves, although some villagers had progressed to corrugated metal roofs, which they then complained made the houses too hot in the sun and very loud in the rain. Those made of leaves had to replace them every three years, which was a big job, so you can see the motivation for moving to metal.

The money from our stay could be given to the village in two ways: either we could have a home stay with a local family and they would directly receive all the money for whatever they wanted (healthcare, education, clothes, or just simply whisky!) or we could stay in the eco lodge and the money would go to the chief of the village who will hold quarterly meetings to decide how the money would best be spent for the good of the village. This meant that if someone was sick or pregnant, or a house or the school needed repair, there was a mutual fund to help. We decided this was the best way to ensure the money was responsibly spent in a way that was most beneficial for all the people. A local family cooked our ferns and bamboo shoots, and made us pomelo with garlic and chili, wild mushrooms from around the village, with sticky rice for dinner. We watched the locals play football, played with the puppies and met the chief of the village. We heard from Som that an older man in the village was very sick, (he was the man that the bamboo box with offerings had been made for) and in the next couple of days the villagers would sacrifice an animal for him and his spirit. We were glad we chose to stay in the Eco lodge after hearing that, as this money should then help pay for his healthcare or, as is sadly more likely in this area of the world, his end of life care.

The villagers go to bed early – a necessity since, with the heavy rain, their hydroelectric systems were useless (they would just be washed away if they tried to use them). We ended up tucked up in our beds -bamboo mats on the floor- by 8:30pm! To be honest the early bedtime was welcome, we were both cream crackered from the walk and the heat. After 4 months of sitting down in the Landy we aren’t exactly in the same shape as before!

That night the heavens truly opened – it poured with rain for several hours and we barely slept; by morning time the river was rising again and Som reminded us that the river would be treacherous. Way to make us worried! We had breakfast with a local girl called Hom – noodles and sticky rice (they really, really like sticky rice here). We were joined at the table not only by Hom, but also by 4 dogs and several chickens, all of whom were obviously quite peckish! One of the chickens decided to hop up on the table while I was slyly palming off my overgenerous sticky rice portion on one of the village dogs, burying its head in the remaining sticky rice – causing quite a reaction and a laugh from Hom who was clearly used to this!

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The chicken who came for tea…

After our carbs and carbs, the second guide finally arrived with the kayaks. Neither of us had ever been in a two man kayak on white water, so this was our primary concern. We had a little pep talk between us about the challenges, advantages and disadvantages of this kind of boat, and to be honest we both started to worry about what we had in store for us! Som had spoken at great length with his boss back at the office about us and whether we were inventing our kayaking experience, and concluded we should start in separate kayaks (one guide and one of us in each) to test our abilities. We obviously got off to a good start – after one set of rapids we were allowed to sit together. It was shortly after this that the guide I’d been sitting with was whipped off the back of their kayak by a stray vine that caught him around the neck! Well, I’d not seen Som move so fast to regain control of their boat and rescue the other guide! It was like a scene from James Bond!

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Pre-Kayak – hiding “the fear” rather nicely!

If we are completely honest we were both a bit underwhelmed by the “super dangerous rapids” which we felt were pretty straight forward! We paddled onwards, and our biggest challenge in fact turned out to be bailing water out of the boat!!! Along the river we stopped off at two villages, one Khamu village, an offshoot of where we stayed over night, and one Lamet village, who had a really cool baby monkey they’d rescued after its mum had fled during a thunderstorm. We had a lot of fun playing with her, although it did culminate in her chewing on the end of my sunglasses!

We had lunch in the chief of the Lamet village’s home. Here we were shown how they weave cotton to make their clothes and the handicrafts they sell as souvenirs. The chiefs in these villages are voted in every three years, and this particular chief covered both this Lamet village, and the second Khamu village we visited that morning. He was new to the job and busied himself with laying down the law with Som about how things would work under his rule! Our lunch in his home was sticky rice (naturally), marrow and beans. As simple as the food might sound, it was really delicious! After a pudding of sugar cane, Som said we could leave our leftovers for the locals – by leaving the table while others were yet to eat, it was necessary for us to pick the table up and move it slightly, to keep the spirits away.

We had our last paddle down the river, joining on to a smaller, calmer river. The heavens opened once more just as we arrived at the car that would take us back to Luang Namtha. Som declared us the best tourists he’d ever seen kayak, which we figure was praise indeed from someone who clearly had little faith in us that morning!

We had a relaxed evening back at Zuela in Luang Namtha before heading down to Luang Prabang on the morning of Tuesday 23rd August. Although it was only 300km (a distance which paled into insignificance compared to our long days in China) to Luang Prabang, it was to take more than 6 hours to get there. The roads wind through the mountains, and trucks, bikes, locals and animals jump out of no where. Caesar took it steady, stopping at a hilltop restaurant (complete with two pet monkeys and some pet squirrels) for lunch. The owners were really friendly and were pretty impressed that two Brits had found their way there! After a brief look over the menu we were surprised to see Sautéed Morning Glory on offer! We decided to give that a miss… Stuffed again with egg and tomato soup, fried pork and, in unexpected news : steamed rice!!! we were fuelled and ready for the remaining kilometres. Luang Prabang was a really beautiful town. You can really feel the French influence here, with more signs in French, traditional French and Lao cuisine on offer, bakeries, boutique guesthouses, beautiful architecture, and…. WINE!!!!! I can tell you now, it didn’t matter that it was clearly a cheap bottle of Sauvignon Blanc. I was bloody happy to have my first taste of this sweet nectar since Russia! It’s simply not natural to go so long without it! We had dinner at Khaipheine, a restaurant that takes underprivileged youths off of the streets of Luang Prabang and teaches them English, hospitality skills and cookery. They have ‘students’ and ‘teachers’ who serve you, and the food is bloody good. All round a pretty feel-good evening!

Our hotel left a little to be desired, we managed to whittle the price down to £7 per night which clearly resulted in us being given the worst room in the place – with no natural light in our room, it was a little dank. We had an ok night’s sleep though, and headed out to Le Banneton for breakfast. Le Banneton was probably a top 3 highlight of the city, with delicious French pastries, English breakfast tea and coffee too! We gorged ourselves and waddled in the heat over to Wat Xieng Thong along the road from our hotel. This was probably the most stunning temple we’d seen, with sweeping roofs and beautiful intricate designs on the walls, pillars, doors and ceilings. I had to don a shawl and a skirt as I was not “appropriately dressed”, much to Will’s amusement!

As Luang Prabang heated up to a steamy 41 degrees we decided to retreat to the aircon in the hotel to do some more planning for our Thai permit. We heard back from a tour guide in Cambodia that, without spending some $800 on a permission letter from Phnom Penh, going through the only Laos-Cambodia border would be nigh on impossible. So, it was time to hash together a new plan and hound the only two agents able to process permit applications until one of them agreed to do it quickly for us. Usually, given that we need exceptions to the permit regulations (to enter and exit through two different borders), we would need to allow 30 days for the permit application. That would be fine if our initial plan of going through Cambodia before Thailand was still possible, but as it wasn’t, we had to chivvy them along to avoid being in Laos for yonks. Eventually we heard back, and from what we can understand from the agent’s broken English, we’re pretty sure she can do it in 2-3 weeks. We’ll have to wait and see!

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Everything you ever needed to know about Laos!

Back to visiting Luang Prabang after finishing off our paperwork, that afternoon we strolled along the Mekong, trundled around the markets picking up a very fetching wife beater (vest) for Will… had a couple of Beerlao (when in Laos…), and walked up Phu Si to watch the sun set. It was ridiculously hot but the view was really beautiful from up on this hill. We spent about half an hour just watching the sky change as the sun went down. For dinner that evening we went to Luang Prabang’s oldest family owned restaurant and had yellow noodles and Laos coconut and fish soup with rice noodles. We were replete to say the least after this, it was delicious!


On Thursday 25th August we drove onward to Kuang Si waterfall. We were a little worried this place would be rammed full of westerners (given that every taxi driver in the city was trying to give us a lift there) but were pleasantly surprised to find it wasn’t too busy. The waterfall includes a moon and sun bear rescue centre, which was actually lovely to see. Generally speaking, we’re not the biggest fans of seeing animals in captivity, and the last moon bears we’d seen (at the Great Wall in Badaling) looked miserable as sin. These little guys, on the other hand, were full of energy, with the cubs playing together and the adults searching out the food that the keepers had hidden around their enclosure. They were all rescued from poachers or abusive owners, and brought here as releasing them back into the wild would only lead them to be poached again. Moon and sun bear bile is used in Chinese medicine, so these bears are often found in cages hardly big enough to turn around in, used for their bile and eventually killed when they get too old. It was fair to say that life in these enclosures playing around and snoozing in hammocks with their bear friends would be vastly better than life in a tiny cage.

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Happy bears!

The fall itself was pretty impressive – it’s the rainy season here so, of course, the water isn’t clear blue like it would be in the dry season, but it was stunning in any case. We both took a run across the bridge at the bottom of the waterfall to get a better view from the other side – soggy!


As we headed along to Vang Vieng that afternoon, we enjoyed being on winding country roads and rickety bridges again. Laos was like no country we’d ever seen before. The views from the road were outstanding, with rice paddies, karst landscape, water buffalo, temples and beautiful villages dotted along the drive.The water buffalo here, by the way, are the size of tanks. I wouldn’t want to pit Caesar against one as I’m pretty sure we’d lose! The roads were not without their challenges – with the recent downpours, landslides were plentiful and diggers were out in their dozens clearing the roads again. The roads were often falling away down the cliff sides or subsiding and creating almost a staircase effect in the road itself, so that kept us on our toes! That added to the 10-12% inclines and declines, Caesar was working hard! Nothing like the sound of a 200tdi in second gear at 40kph down a hill!

About 40km from Vang Vieng, Caesar’s accelerator gave way, and although the engine was still very much running, we had no throttle! Will dived for the side of the road and I jumped out, placing a couple of logs in the road to warn others coming around the corner (standard practice in this neck of the woods as we’d learnt in China). Up went the bonnet, and Will was relieved to see that it was just a cotter pin that had parted ways with the pin holding the accelerator cable to the throttle on the engine. No need to run diagnostics on our non-existent ECU! We dug out the cotter pins from our spares box, popped in a new one, and within 5 minutes we were back on the road. You’ve got to love our old, simple Landy!


By the time we reached Vang Vieng, the heavens had truly opened (did we mention it’s rainy season?), and our hopes of camping had been dashed. Instead, we headed to Maylyn Guesthouse, run by an Irish guy called Joe and his Laos wife. To get there you had to cross the toll bridge – not exactly comparable to the Severn Bridge, it was £2 for a round trip and rickety as sin, but we are thankful to say it can just about handle a 3 tonne, 2.5m high Landy! Joe’s English friend from Norwich was visiting at the time, and so Caesar got a warm welcome and was privileged to be parked in Joe’s front yard, safely tucked off the road. They enjoyed hearing our travel tales and told us about when Joe had moved to Laos and his friend had moved to Thailand 15 years previous. They had a veritable zoo of cats and dogs so I was entertained while the boys talked bikes and bike accidents (one of Will’s favourite topics of conversation as his family stories always beat everyone else’s!). Joe told us the next day would be his 70th birthday, and he kindly invited us along to his party next door. As standard, plenty of Beerlao were consumed, and we had a really very pleasant evening.

The next day it transpired that the tubing place in town was closed (due to rain or otherwise we weren’t sure) so we followed Joe’s advice and did a loop around Vang Vieng of the two blue lagoons and a cave. The first blue lagoon was natural, so was brown if we’re honest, but good fun nonetheless, with rope swings, trees to jump off and the like. We explored the cave there before trotting along to the next blue lagoon. Well, this was the winner – it was manmade so the rain hadn’t turned it brown and it was beautiful! We grabbed a rubber ring and floated around, eventually finding a Brit and a Canadian who asked all about Caesar and our Roam.

Finally it was time to return to the guesthouse and celebrate Joe’s birthday. He’d laid on a feast and dozens of crates of Beerlao, along with a few bottles of whisky for good measure! We spent the evening chatting with a couple of Norwegians who were working in a guesthouse along the way, and Gary, from Gary’s Irish Pub. Perhaps (OK, definitely) a stupid statement, but I didn’t really realise that Irish people ran Irish pubs… The oldest two gents in the town then carried out the Laos ‘baci‘ for Joe, a traditional blessing for good luck, prosperity, health and wealth. This was quite impressive, including a roasted chicken and sticky rice which they used to break the fast together after the blessing. During the ceremony Will and I were invited to sit down with them and also joined in in breaking the fast, with the locals offering us cotton bracelets afterwards to wish us prosperity too. We asked that they include Caesar in this too… Shame they didn’t speak English!

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Joe’s Lao “baci”

With our permit for Thailand looking like it might take at least a couple of weeks to be completed, meaning we couldn’t enter Thailand until roughly 15th September, we had more time to play with in Laos than we initially expected. So, what better thing to do than find a nice camping spot where we could put our feet up! For any other overlanders reading this, if you haven’t yet discovered the app iOverlander, you need to get on the AppStore/PlayStore right now and download it. This app is a treasure trove of good places to camp, hotels with secure parking, mechanics, tourist sights… The list goes on. Each place has a review and a GPS location, so you can easily find it. We’ve used it almost daily since leaving England in April, getting advice and adding to it ourselves. We’d spotted on there a place called Nirvana Resort, which two overlanders had camped at previously, right on the northern bank of the Nam Ngum lake. They had written that there was a bear and monkey rescue centre there – well, we could hardly say no to that could we!? It was only 20km south of Vang Vieng too, so nice and close by. We pootled down and arrived by midday, meeting the French owner, his French receptionist and bar man, and their American Bulldog – Asean. It says a lot about me as a person that the one name I retained from this place was the dog’s… We had a cold drink and were shown around the monkeys and the bear enclosure – all of which had been rescued from poachers. These were certainly feisty little monkeys, older and more troublesome than the little one we met in a village a few days previous. We were warned they like to nab anything they can get their little hands and feet on, so best to give them some space. Bouba, the bear, was absolutely gorgeous – she had been just 2 months old when she first came to the resort and at first had been able to roam around the bar as she’d been so small. When she got to 80kg she became a little less manageable and they moved her into her enclosure. Here she has a fan to keep her cool, a small bath and a larger swimming pool. She actually has the best pool in town – hers has fresh water from underground, meaning she gets a cool, mineral water dip every day, while the minion humans staying in the resort next door have a swimming pool filled with lake water – not refreshing at all. She seemed like a pretty happy bear and later when we returned we found her sat in her smaller bath playing with the water hose and pawing the water over herself. Cute. We helped to feed the monkeys and, despite 101 warnings, Will eventually lost his sunglasses to the little tinkers. As he leant forward to offer a banana to the most mischievous monkey, the little sod snatched the glasses off his head instead and started chewing on them straight away! The owner stepped in and a fun game of Bribe a Monkey commenced. Needless to say, monkeys are clever little things and don’t fall for bribery as quickly as you might hope. Eventually this monkey gave in and dropped the sunnies in exchange for a banana, only for them to be snatched up by another larger monkey before the owner could get a hand in to grab them. Bugger. By now, the 6 or 7 monkeys in the cage were going totally crazy, obviously knowing that they had something us idiot humans wanted! The dog was barking and the bear was looking on in awe at our idiocy. Eventually the larger monkey gave in to the temptation of a banana and returned the (now very muddy and chewed) glasses to the resort’s owner. We were amazed to see that they hadn’t managed to break the glass with their spiky teeth, so it was nothing a few baby wipes couldn’t fix! The owner was clearly a bit worried when he realised they were Prada… And relieved to hear that they were Mongolian Prada – not exactly genuine… Lesson learnt for Will? Probably not…


That evening a couple of French guys, Nathalie and Rémi, from the resort next door came over to join us for some beers and cocktails at Nirvana. They are working in Vientiane so we’re likely to see them again when we’re exploring the capital over the next few days. A pleasant evening was had by all.

“Goodbye Green.”

Border crossing: China- Laos (Mohan-Boten)

19/08/16

Stats:
Days on the road: 129
Kilometres covered: 27,780km

Today’s special stats:
Important documents lost at borders: 2
Visas obtained on the road: 2

We arrived at the border on the 19th August at 1pm. Green, our guide, had already organised our arrival with the border agency guys that NAVO contract to help with the border process, so they were expecting us and they said it should only take an hour to leave China.

We changed our remaining Yuan to Kip with one of the ladies by the side of the road. She was offering 1200 Kip to the Yuan and as the official rate was 1219 we didn’t feel too mugged off exchanging them here. We’d heard from the guys at Plodd Stop in Thailand that they only accept Kip and Yuan (not US Dollars or Thai Baht) for the insurance over the border, so we decided now was as good a time as any to swap.
The first stage was for us to get our passports stamped out of China, in the building on the right side as you arrive, just dump your car somewhere beforehand. After this, the passenger walks forward to wait beyond the gate while the driver goes back to fetch the car, where Green had to sort the car documents with the military police. She asked Will for the paper we were given for the car upon entry – either we were never given this, or we failed to keep it safe, as it was no where to be found! They then had to process a new car customs paper, so Green had to show them the Chinese car license plate, Chinese driving license and driver’s passport. They then went off to check our entry point to ensure we were genuine. Green thought that us leaving without Eduardo and Lu may be an issue, but there was no problem.
Because of this there was about 45 minutes of kerfuffle as they issued a new paper. Otherwise, this would have been a smooth, quick process.

Will then said his goodbyes to Green and drove into no man’s land, meeting me (the passenger) on the other side. We drove on a short distance and stopped to start our Laos paperwork at a building on the right hand side. There is a $2 Laos Tourism Fund fee per person, payable just before you enter the building. This guy speaks a little English and helped to direct us. You can apply for a temporary driving license here but there is no need if you have the International Driver’s Permit. That desk is in front of you as you walk in. Otherwise, go to the first window on the right hand side and get your visa application form and entry paper. The fee for British citizens is $35 but most European countries seemed to be $30, with a few costing $40. The payment and processing is done at the next window along. There was a man in that office who spoke some English. The processing time was a whole 3 minutes and we could then get the visas stamped for our entry at the passport check just beyond.

Will then went back for the car and drove to the barrier. The police looked inside the back of the car, questioning only our bottle of water! They don’t look at your car documents but they do sign a piece of paper for the car (Will isn’t sure what this was). Here, there is a toilet on the right hand side, 2,000 kip per wee or free if you smile nicely (which is what I did, since Will had all the cash and was still dealing with the car check!).

You then drive forward past many duty free shops. We found insurance at one of the huts in the car park of a duty free mall on the right hand side. This guy spoke no English but the form is in both Thai/Laos and English and he’s happy for you to write on it for him. We paid 208,000 for the car, I don’t think it’s based on the size or type of car, or how many drivers and their age, just how long you want to stay. This was payable only in Kip. Hopefully this is a genuine, real insurance!

We then drove forward to a check point. Here you fill out your customs declaration and they process the car for customs. You’ll need the driver’s passport, vehicle documents and the passenger’s documents too. They also speak no English so this is a bit more complicated, but doable. We paid 35,000 Kip for this inbound car fee, again payable only in Kip.

You then pass through a barrier and you’re free to go! If you missed it, there are more insurance huts after this barrier (on the right), plus an ATM (on the left).

Welcome to Laos!

Total time to cross: 3 hours