Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Siem Reap and the Temples of Angkor

Any visit to Cambodia would be incomplete without a visit to the ancient Temples of Angkor in Siem Reap.  We'd been looking forward to this since we started planning our trip last year and we could barely contain our excitement as we made our way to the bus station in Phnom Penh to catch an overnight bus for the 5 hour journey north.

Excitement quickly turned to horror when we saw the bus we'd be traveling on.  Our night bus was actually more of a nightmare bus!  To say that the bus was suffering from a bit of wear and tear would be a gross understatement.  If you've read any of our other posts you'll know that we've been on one or two rough bus rides (it's become a bit of a theme actually) but this one topped the lot.  Not only was the bus in truly shocking condition, the driver was a completely insane.  When we joined some other passengers in insisting that another bus be provided his response was "no problem, no problem."  As you can probably guess, that didn't mean "Of course, we'll have a nice new bus along in just a moment.  Your comfort and safety is our number one priority.  No, it meant you either get on this bus or you won't be going anywhere any time soon.

Ad for bus to Siem Reap

Actual bus to Siem Reap.  Spot the difference.

Getting on the bus was probably not the wisest choice we've ever made but we made it there in one piece in the end, albeit with our nerves a little shot.  And as Lizzie would say, the story is "good for the blog!"

Anyway, Siem Reap.  What can you say about this place?  It's pretty hard to put into words how amazing the Temples of Angkor are, the pictures barely even do it justice.  We rented tuk tuks for the day ($35 for 2) to take us out to the temples and drive us from site to site.  We arrived at Angkor Wat, the main temple, at a little after 5am to watch the sun come up over the temple and lake.  We spent the whole day exploring various sites, we visited 5 in total, and watched the sun go down from one of the temples in the evening.  Unfortunately, Courtney was quite sick for the first half of the day with an upset stomach so she didn't have the best morning but she was determined not to let it ruin our day so she soldiered on and made it through a full 12-hours of walking around the temples.

While in Siem Reap we stayed at Mitri Guesthouse (  A nice, family-run guesthouse with basic rooms that included AC, TV, hot shower and free internet all for $12-a-night!  Great value.

On either side of our marathon day at the temples we decided just to relax in town.  On our first day we grabbed breakfast at the Singing Tree Restaurant, an awesome little place on the food alley in town (next to Pub Street) and after some exploring we treated ourselves to a some fish!  For $2 you can have little fish nibble the dead skin from your feet for 15 minutes.  After you get over the initial ticklishness of it it's actually quite a nice sensation.  Some local kids came by selling books and ended up watching as the fish went to work.  Their poor little feet looked like they could use a break so we ended up treating them to massages of their own and they loved it!

On our last day in town it was so hot so we decided to find a hotel with a pool that we could cool off in.  We each paid $4 to use a lovely rooftop pool at the Riverside Hotel.  We watched the sun go down in the distance before heading out for a few drinks to say goodbye to Kate, Lizzie and Claire (for the second time!)   A great way to end our whistle-stop tour of Cambodia.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Welcome to Cambodia - land of temples, daytime pajama-wearing, and naked babies!

From Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon if you're old school) we hopped a bus across the border to Cambodia's captial, Phnom Penh.  We arrived bang in the middle of the Buddhist New Year celebrations so a lot of things were closed and overall it was pretty quiet.

First impressions of Cambodia, or at least Phnom Penh, were that it is much more developed than we thought it would be.  There are not as many taller buildings as we saw in Bangkok and Saigon for example, but the city seemed to be spread over quite a large area and there's a pretty strong western influence, particularly in the restaurants and bars.

Another thing that struck us was the incredible number of really young children selling a variety of things from books to bracelets.  It was quite sad really.  There is obviously quite a significant amount of poverty throughout southeast Asia and we've seen children working in each country we've visited, but there seemed to be so many more of them here in Phnom Penh and they were so aggressive.  It becomes clear pretty quickly that the kids receive some training in the art of selling to tourists, each one running through the exact same sales pitch trying to encourage you to part with some cash.  These kids are so smart too.  If the initial sales pitch doesn't go well they ask where you're from.  Once they know they start to rattle off facts about your country - current president/PM, total population, capital city, last year's GDP - they know more about where you live than you probably do!

We would see the same kids over and over again and would try to make them smile and have some fun with them.  Our favorite little guy was called "Pop".  He had a great personality, gregarious and very smart.  He would hang out with us for a bit each day when he would come by selling books.  On our last day in Phnom Penh he gave all the girls hugs, you could literally see Courtney's heart melting.

Lee and Pop
Although the children selling things was pretty sad, we saw some genuinely happy sights.  There seemed to be a lot of young babies all over the place in PP and parents weren't too concerned about putting any clothes on them either!  Not surprised really, it was so hot when we were there.  Everywhere we'd go we'd see little babies without a stitch on, running around with big smiles on their faces, having the time of their lives!  "Oh my God!  That baby is sooooo cute!!" was heard on more than a couple of occasions.

The mystery we never quite got to the bottom of in PP was why a not insignificant number of people were out and about at any given time of the day, fully decked out in flannel pajamas!  Those things are hot even when it's minus 3 outside and you're on top of the covers with the AC on so wearing them while sweeping the sidewalk in 40 degree heat must be murder!

 A particularly fetching set of PJs on the back of a motorbike

Friday, April 16, 2010

Technical Difficulties - Part II

Some of you avid followers might have noticed that there haven't been as many photos uploaded recently.  As we mentioned previously, we've had a few issues with cameras (now on our 3rd of the trip) and memory cards but that's all sorted out now.  However, access to decent internet is tricky in Cambodia and uploading photos takes forever.  So, we're trying to upload photos in batches to keep us from going insane from sitting in sweaty internet cafes for hours on end.  Hopefully we'll have them all up online for your viewing pleasure very soon.

L & C


Unfortunately, due to our schedule we were only able to stay in Saigon (now named Ho Chi Minh City after Uncle Ho) for one day, but what we saw of it made us want to come back for more.  We arrived in the evening after a 5-hour bus ride from Mui Ne and the streets were bustling with all sorts of activity.  Saigon has a pretty cool vibe with tons of bars and restaurants to fit every budget and taste.  The night we arrived we actually ended up having some pretty good Mexican food at a place called Cantina, just off of Pham Ngu Lao Street in District 1 (one of the main backpacker areas).

The following day we visited the War Remnants Museum which contains artifacts and photographs from the Vietnam War (referred to as the "American War" in Vietnam).  The displays are graphic and pretty shocking and, unsurprisingly, very one-sided.  Up until the mid-90s the museum was actually called "Museum of American War Crimes."

One of the most interesting parts of the day for us was meeting a group of American Marines who organize tours to Vietnam several times a year for veterans.  We asked them what they thought of the museum and they said that what is displayed is real and happened during the war but is less than one percent of the full the story.  They pointed out that there were atrocities on both sides and it is the unfortunate reality of war.  We were also surprised to learn that on their tours they regularly meet with North Vietnamese veterans to give presentations about certain events during the war and engage in a dialogue.

After the museum we went to Reunification Palace but it was closed for lunch so we took a few snapshots and grabbed some lunch ourselves.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Mui Ne

The overnight bus trip from Hoi An to Mui Ne was a pleasant surprise for us after some of the bus experiences we had in previous countries.  It was clean, comfortable, and left on time.  We booked an open bus ticket from Hoi An through Saigon (our last stop in Vietnam) through Sinh Tourists.  The cost was $20 each and the open bus ticket allows for flexibility in timing and number of stops you want to make along the way.  There are Sinh Tourists offices in every city and they are usually located close to the touristy parts of town, so it is easy to find a place to stay once they drop you off at their office.

When we arrived in Mui Ne we headed straight to the hotel to meet Kate, Lizzie, and Claire (Kate's older sister).  Located right on the water with large swimming pool, the Hai Yen Hotel looked like a perfect spot to relax for a couple of days and the room cost only $15 per night.  The girls hadn't arrived yet, so we decided to have a quick bite to eat and jump right in the pool.  It was refreshing.

We spent the entire day reading our books and swimming.  The hotel is located right near the local fishing village so we could see the local fishermen in their small boats rowing by.  We met a lovely Australian couple, Ian and Jan Flanders, who were retired and traveling around South East Asia for 6 months.  We all went to dinner and told our stories. Meeting people from different countries and of all ages has been one of the best parts of this trip for us.

We decided to continue with our tradition of big nights out in beach towns (please see Byron Bay and Surfer's Paradise posts) and go to a local bar called Pogo which was conveniently located next to our place.  The girls had lunch there earlier in the day and said the food was really delicious.  Unfortunately, the bar was empty that night.  After sharing a bucket of vodka and 7UP we jumped in a cab and asked to be taken to a place we could dance.  The driver first took us to what looked like a very expensive bar that seemed too quiet.  We then asked to go where the locals are.  The WAX bar was exactly what we were looking for!

It was packed with locals and a couple of westerners.  After sharing another bucket we were ready to hit the dance floor which was fairly empty at the time.  Lizzie decided she would start pulling local girls up to dance. Lee got up on the platform.  And Kate and Courtney danced and snapped loads of pictures. Before we knew it it was 4 AM and we were completely drenched from jumping around.

One our way home we stopped and had some burgers at a restaurant called Joe's which is open 24/7.  The owner, Joe, is from Vermont and moved to Vietnam 10 years ago.  Courtney and the girls got to talking with Joe about how the country has changed since he had moved here. Unfortunately, Lee missed out on the stimulating conversation because he was passed out on the big, comfy couch.  It proved to be a good night once again.

We all decided to spend the day in Mui Ne and leave on the 3 PM bus to Saigon.  We woke up early and took a walk on the beach, hung out by the pool, and then hopped on a bus to Saigon.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Hoi An: A Tailor-made Town

Hoi An is one of our favorite spots so far on this journey.  The old town's pedestrian only streets are breathtaking with their old french colonial buildings, canals, and the classical music playing through the town's sound system.  The town used to be a major trading port for the French, but today the town is known for it's tailors.  Because of the size of our backpacks and our budget we did not think we would be purchasing any new clothing,  but after peering into the hundreds of tailor shops with beautiful wool coats, silk dress, and handmade suits we thought we might reconsider.

The Tailors
There are hundreds to chose from and their motos are "why not?'" and '"no problem""  when discussing what they can tailor fit for you.  We looked in several of the shops before deciding on the place for us.  The women were smiley, chatty, and confident in their work.  Courtney ended up getting four dresses and a raincoat made for next to nothing.  She felt like a celebrity flipping through endless catalogs of beautiful clothing.  Lee was not left out of the fun and got two work shirts and three casual shirts tailor fitted to perfection.  It was a lot of fun and cheap!  The best part is you design the clothing one day and the next morning you go for your fitting.  You can't get service like that in the Western world!

The Food
Hoi An also had delicious food.  When we arrived the hotel staff told us to try two traditional dishes: Cau Lau and White rose.  Cau Lau is a noodle dish with fresh greens and is usually served with pork medallions.  White rose is a steamed dumpling stuffed with shrimp and vegetables.  We were hooked and ordered these dishes in almost every restaurant!  Another one of our favorite Vietnamese dishes was the country pancake.  Our waitress taught us how to wrap the crispy pancake in rice paper after she laughed at Courtney for eating it incorrectly!  Lee was happy because beers in Hoi An were about .40 cents and Courtney was happy because dinner never cost us more than $4!

Cua Dai Beach
We decided to rent bicycles and ride to the beach which is located 4 KM outside of the town center.  We rented them from the neighbor of the hotel for .70 cents each for the whole day.  The beach was beautiful even though it was not the sunniest of days.  We relaxed and took naps.  Courtney always feels a bit awkward in her bikini because the women in Vietnam do not show their body.  They strive to have white, pure skin so they wear long pants and long sleeves to the beach and even swim in their clothes.  Courtney and some of the local women joked that they should trade skin!

Reunited At Last
We caught up with Kate, Lizzie, and Kate's sister Claire in Hoi An as well!  We spent the first night trading stories of our travels since we left them in Australia.  It was really nice to see some familiar faces.

During dinner we were approached by a older woman selling peanuts which Claire decided to buy.  We chatted with the lady for a few minutes and thought nothing of the situation.  Again and again Claire ran into this woman around town over the next couple of days.  The woman kept saying how kind Claire was and invited us to her house for tea.  We accepted the invitation and the five us of went for tea a couple hours before catching our bus out of town.  We traded stories about life and met her family.  The Vietnamese people believe it is good luck to welcome others into their home.  It was a really interesting experience even though we were flipping through phrase books to help with the conversation.

My Son
We decided to take a day trip to My Son, ruins located 35 KM outside of the town.  It was a religious center built in the late 4th century and occupied until the 13th century.  Today it is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Hue to Hoi An in style

After experiencing the beautiful city of Hue from the back seat of a couple of motorbikes - really fun and exhilarating and, on occasion, terrifying - we decided to use the same means of transport to travel to our next stop, Hoi An.  It's about 150 kilometers to Hoi An but the trip would take us most of the day as we had a few stops planned along the way.

Our trusty drivers were Mr. Tai and Quan of Hue Adventures (, the same guys that took us on the Hue city tour.  We met them at their restaurant, the Avocado on Nguyen Tri Phuong Street, and started to load up our backpacks.  We were really worried about how they were going to deal with the backpacks which looked really big next to the motorbikes but they wrapped them in plastic and strapped them on the little parcel shelves on the back of their bikes.  You barely knew they were there.  Lee's pack even doubled as a nice backrest!  Then we hit the road.

We've traveled on so many buses throughout our trip so traveling by motorbike was a completely different experience - a welcome change and so much fun.  The traffic getting out of the city was pretty crazy.  The horn is key in Vietnam.  Every single driver uses it and they use it often.  Basically if any vehicle is within 30 feet of another they will lay on the horn to let the other driver know they're there.  Trucks and buses give a bit more warning and if you hear one of them and you're on a motorbike it means get the hell out of the way.  The rule is the bigger vehicle gets the right of way - bicycles give way to scooters, scooters, to motorbikes, motorbikes to cars, and so on.  EVERYTHING gives way to buses because they're huge and the drivers are generally psychotic. Anyway, although it looks and sounds like complete chaos, the drivers seem to know what they're doing (you have to tell yourself that when you're on the back of one of them doing 60) so after a while you get used to it and just sit back and enjoy the scenery.

We made a short stop about 15k out of Hue to take a look at the local fishermen working in their long boats before heading pressing on towards the Elephant Falls for some swimming.  It's called Elephant Falls because it is a waterfall with a large Elephant carved into a rock. The falls had various wading pools, a large main pool, a natural water slide, a large rock that you could jump from and a wooden bridge. We immediately changed into our swim suits and jumped into the cold water which provided some much needed relief from the beating sun.

After about an hour of swimming we were back on the road....and then off again....Court's bike got a flat!  Luckily there are almost as many motorbike mechanics as there are motorbikes so we were able to get it fixed and we were on the move again.

We climbed a mountain and stopped at an American bunker at the top.  The views were amazing.  Vietnam's coast is beautiful and much hillier than we thought it would be.  We made our way down the winding roads on the other side of the mountain and into the city of Da Nang for a late lunch.  Tai and Quan took us to a great little restaurant that they often go to and ordered us a delicious multi-course lunch that included fresh fish, noodles, steamed vegetables, rice, omelet, and soup.  We made a brief stop at the famous China Beach but it was a little overcast so we decided just to grab a couple of pictures and carry on moving.

View from inside the bunker
Our final stop was at Marble Mountains.  Marble Mountains is a cluster of five marble and limestone hills located in Ngu Hanh Son ward, south of Da Nang city in Vietnam. The five 'mountains' are named after the five elements; Kim (metal), Thuy (water), Moc (wood), Hoa (fire) and Tho (earth).  All of the mountains have cave entrances and numerous tunnels, and it's possible to climb to the summit of one of the peaks. There are also several Buddhist sanctuaries within the mountains.  The area is famous for stone sculpture making and stone-cutting crafts.  The stairs to access the mountains are pretty steep and there are a lot of them so we got quite a workout.  We spent about an hour exploring the caves, tunnels and sanctuaries before jumping back on our bikes to go the final few kilometers to Hoi An.

Mr. Tai had recommended a hotel in Hoi An so we decided to check it out.  Upon arrival at the Houang Trinh Hotel ( we were greeted with hot green tea and some delicious coconut macaroons.  The room was great and was only $12-a-night so we checked in immediately.

This trip was definitely one of the highlights of our travels so far.  After having such a good time over the last 2 days with Mr. Tai and Quan, we were sad to leave them.  In fact, we briefly considered having them take us all the way to Saigon but we already had plans to meet up with Kate and Lizzie (our travel companions from Australia) in Hoi An so we couldn't do it.  As we said our goodbyes we promised to see them again on our next visit to Vietnam.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Hue, Vietnam

After our long, overnight journey we were happy to arrive in Hue but extremely tired and smelly from the overnight adventure. Instead of roaming the city in search of a place to stay, we decided to turn to the trusty Lonely Planet guidebook. We ended up staying at Thai Binh II which was nice but not spectacular for the price. We spent more then planned ($24 a night) but it did include breakfast and air-conditioning which was a bonus. The staff was extremely nice and the rooms were clean.

After our long, hot showers we decided to go searching for food because it had been over 16 hours since we had eaten. Roaming the streets, we stumbled upon a restaurant called Avocado located on Nguyen Tri Phuong Street. We met the owners, Mr. Tai and his wife, and immediately felt at home. We ordered a traditional Vietnamese dish, Pho, which is a noodle soup. After talking with Mr. Tai for a bit Courtney decided to ask what we should do during our two day stay in Hue. It turns out that Mr. Tai and nine partners also own a motorbike tour company ( and said he could take us on a full city tour for $12 US dollars each including lunch. We could not pass up the price or the company. We were almost set to book for the next day but realized our camera was still broken from the motorbike spill in Tha Khaek. Mr. Tai said he could take us to a shop to see if they could fix it and let us borrow his camera in the meantime. Full Service.

Our motorcycle guys Quan and Tai
Our tour started at 9 AM the next day at Avocado Restaurant. Mr, Tai and one of his partner Quan were our drivers for the day. We felt safe in their hands even though the roads in Hue are a bit chaotic. Our first stop was a set of American bunkers overlooking the Huong River where soldiers were stationed to look out for invasion from the north. Today, the bunkers overlook beautiful landscape to the north and the south. There was even a wedding celebration along the river.

 American bunker overlooking the Huong River

We also got to check out several pagodas around the city with Monks chanting their morning rituals. The architecture is modest in Vietnam with more intricate designs and less bold color than in Laos and Thailand.

One of our favorite places to walk around was Tu Duc Tomb which was constructed in 1867, This area is where the Emperor worked and relaxed during his life and now where he and his family are buried. There were tons of tourists because this is one of the most popular historical sites to visit. Admission to the site was 60,000 Dong (about $3).

Lunch was one of the best parts of the day. Mr. Tai and Quan took us to a great restaurant filled with locals. It was nice to get away from the tourists and we would have never been able to find this place on our own! We ate a delicious local noodle dish and fresh spring rolls which are the only two items on the menu. The food was so fresh and Lee's Beer was cold!

From there we took a few more pictures of historical sites in the city and then headed 20 km out of town to a small village. The drive out was really interesting passing all the women working in the bright green rice paddys and the little children walking home from school. The kids yell hello and put up peace signs as your drive by on motorbikes which Courtney absolutely loves. Even when we are with the local drivers people can spot us from miles away!

In the village we visited a small museum funded by the government that demonstrates local customs, farming/fishing techniques, and daily life activities. One of the village elders, who we could tell has worked in the rice fields for many years by her hunched over back, demonstrated the steps of harvesting rice.

After a wonderful day cruising around on the motorbikes we decided to have Mr. Tai and Quan take us all the way to our next stop Hoi An. The trip would take about 5-6 hours and stop off along the way for swimming and exploring. We figured it would be a nice way to see some of the Vietnam countryside. We booked our trip for the following day!

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Magical Mystery Tour: Laos to Vietnam

We had originally planned to get a bus direct from Tha Khaek to Hue in Vietnam.  Our LP book informed us that this was possible but upon arrival in Tha Khaek we couldn't find any information about what days the buses run, what time they leave, or if there even were any buses going to Vietnam.  We were pretty confident we could get a bus to the border from Savannakhet, a town 3 hours south of where we were, so we headed for the bus station to catch the next bus south.

Our luck was in.  We arrived at the station minutes before a bus was scheduled to leave for Savannakhet.  We grabbed a couple of waters, hopped on board and we were on our way.  Off to a good start.  We pulled into Savannakhet 3 hours later and headed straight over to the ticket office to purchase tickets for the next bus into Vietnam.  It's a 12-hour, overnight journey from Savannakhet to Hue in Vietnam and there were several options - the VIP sleeper bus, the regular air-con bus, and the local bus.  We were hoping to travel in relative comfort on the sleeper but it was a Saturday and it only runs on weekdays.  Same story for the regular air-con bus.  That left us with the local bus.  We'd heard quite a few stories about the local bus but hadn't yet had the pleasure of riding one.  Now we'd get 12 full hours on one!

We were scheduled to leave at 10 pm so we killed some time in Savannakhet before heading back to the bus station.  Our ride rolled up at about 9:30 pm.  Didn't look too bad.  A bit shabby but pretty much in tact.  Nobody seemed in much of a rush to get on so Lee jumped on to check out the scene and try and secure some decent seats.  The seats only went about halfway back in the bus, the rest of the space looked like it was for transporting cargo.  On this particular bus there were 2 large spare tires and a number of boxes including one which contain several live chickens.  A hammock was also strung up between 2 poles toward the rear.  Most of the seats had boxes jammed under them which didn't leave much space for your legs.  We grabbed one of the few seats that had a bit of space below.  Much to our surprise the bus left on-time, the windows and front door were all open so there was a nice breeze flowing through the bus and we started to think this might not be so bad after all.

We chugged along at a steady pace for the first couple of hours.  We were the only foreigners on the entire bus and we stuck out like sore thumbs, but nobody was that interested in us at all and they went about their business.  The seats on this bus were tiny, probably half the size of a normal bus.  But that didn't stop most of our fellow passengers getting comfy by contorting their bodies into seemingly impossible positions and nodding off.  There were feet everywhere.  Locals weren't shy about using the armrest of the seat opposite to stretch their legs.  Those who weren't sleeping were passing the time chain-smoking and flicking their butts into the aisle.  The chickens pretty much kept to themselves, save for the odd bit of clucking.  Only another 10 hours to go.

1am rolled by and we were feeling pretty good about the public bus.  That's when things started to get a bit....bizarre.  First a tough-looking little old man sans shirt (sounds like an oxymoron but he was a muscley little fella) came back through the bus collecting passports.  Everyone else handed them over without a fuss so we assumed this was standard practice but we knew the border didn't open for another 6 hours so we were obviously a bit concerned giving ours up to this character who was clearly NOT an official representative of the Laos government.  We reluctantly handed them over figuring as long as we're all on the bus they can't go anywhere.

A short-while later we pulled over in the middle of nowhere and everyone but the chickens piled off and proceeded to relieve themselves in a field - men beside the bus, women behind.  All very organized.

At around 2am, the bus stopped in a small town, outside what looked like someone's house, and once again everyone got off.  We initially thought it was another "comfort" stop.  Not so.  After several unsuccessful attempts at communicating with other passengers we finally figured out that we were already in the border town of Davannsah and that's exactly where we would be staying until 7am when the border opened.  Out of nowhere a woman appeared and started rustling up noodle soup for everyone (except for us).  Once snack-time was over people started making their way up some stairs at the back of the building.  Noodle soup lady made a sleeping gesture to us and pointed to the stairs.  Watching too many episodes of Nat Geo's "Locked Up Abroad" has made us a bit paranoid about leaving our bags unattended, especially when a border crossing is involved, so we grabbed our bags from the bus and took them upstairs with us.

We slept in what we can only describe as an unfinished attic.  Set up around the room were blankets and pillows on the floor along with mosquito nets covering them.  And it was HOT.  We eventually managed to fall asleep for about 2 hours.

By this point of course we have no idea where our passports are.  Grandad muscles is wandering around but the passports are nowhere to be seen.  Just as the nerves were creeping in a smart looking mustachioed man zipped up on a motor-scooter.  He marched right up to Lee and asked for his passport.  Lee could see it in his hand so pointed at it.  Mustache smiled and said " See you at border.  7am."  And with that he hopped back on his scooter and was off again.

The border was chaos.  Lee eventually found Mustache and asked for our passports.  He pointed at another man we'd never seen before who was wearing a lovely matching denim jacket and jeans and holding a big stack of passports.  When he saw Lee he magically produced both our passports from an inside pocket of his 80s stonewash denim threads. 

We had to walk from Laos to Vietnam. Every time we got a stamp in our passports it cost us a $1.  There were probably close to 50 people crossing at the same time as us but we were the only ones diverted to quarantine.  Not even the chickens were subjected to this!

Finally in Vietnam and back on the bus headed to Hue, we thought nothing else could possibly happen.  About 30k out from Hue, the bus stopped at a little roadside cafe for some food.  At this point we were informed that the bus wasn't even going to Hue!  We were told we'd have to get on a motor bike the rest of the way and pay another 20,000 kip each!  We politely insisted that we'd got a ticket for Hue and that's where we would be going on this bus.

Back on the bus it seemed that our protests had been successful as we continued on towards Hue.  Suddenly the bus stopped again and we were told to get off.  This time they weren't having none of it so we grabbed our bags and made our way to the door.  Just as we were getting upset, a woman who was somehow involved with the bus company (not sure how but she seemed to know everyone and was the main person insisting we get off) handed us some cash and said it was to pay for the rest of our journey.  We got off, completely baffled by the whole exchange and sat by the side of the road.  Not 2 minutes later, a mini-bus showed up and we were bundled on it.  We handed over the money we were given and before we knew it we were right in the center of Hue, much closer than if we had gone to the bus station.

Overall one of the most bizarre experiences we've had on this trip or otherwise.  At the time the scariest thing about it was being completely helpless - we couldn't communicate with anyone and had no control over what was happening.  In the end it seems that there was a system in place the whole time and although chaotic and confusing to us, seems to work fine for the Lao and Vietnamese folks who regularly ride the local bus.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Get your motor running, head out on the highway

We'd been dying to rent a motorbike and get out onto the open road, wind in our hair and all that, and we finally decided to pull the trigger in a place called Tha Khaek in Southern Laos.  There's not much in the town itself but there's plenty of things to see and do just outside.  Route 12 is part of "The Loop" a 3-4 day tour popular with backpackers on motorbikes.  We didn't have that much time so we decided to rent a bike for the day, head east out of town and take in some of the sights along Route 12.

We rented our wheels from a small shop across from where we were staying in Tha Khaek.  It was a pretty small operation run by a friendly Lao guy.  He had 3 bikes to choose from - old, crap, and old and crap.  The shop owner must have sensed we were looking for a bargain as he immediately offered us old and crap.  He said it would be perfect for our day trip and there would be no need to spend the extra 10,000 kip for one of the slightly better bikes.

As neither of us have any experience riding motorbikes Lee asked for a bit of a rundown on how things work - how do you turn it on/ where do you put gas in/ where is the brake? - that sort of thing.  He showed us the gas tank first.  He did this by lifting up the seat to show us where to put gas in.  The thing is the seat wasn't even attached!  He just lifted it off and put it on the floor!  Not a good sign.  The he tried to start it.  The electric starter wasn't working so he said we'd have to kick-start it.  After a couple of attempts he got it purring...and then it died.  He eventually got it started again but it kept dying.  It seems the idle was set too low or something (again, we know nothing about bikes).  After a bit of a think he suggested we take it down the road to have the mechanic adjust it.  That's when we decided it might be wise to pony up the extra 10,000 kip (about $1.25) to secure his best bike - the Fuma.  125ccs of raw, unadulterated power!  We still had to take it to the mechanics for a "tune-up" but after that we were ready to go.

We headed east out of town and into the countryside.  The scenery was beautiful.  We passed through small villages, between limestone karst cliffs, through rice paddys.  We dodged cows, held on for dear life as massive trucks rumbled by covering us in thick clouds of exhaust, and waved at small kids as they played by the side of the road.

Our first stop was at The Falang, a section of river that is a popular swimming spot for tourists and locals.  It took some finding as the signage isn't great but we eventually got there.  Unfortunately, as it's dry season the water was pretty low and it didn't look too inviting so we passed on the swim and hopped back on the bike got back on the road.

Another few miles down the road we stopped off at the Nang Aen Cave, a huge cave with concrete staircases constructed throughout.  It looked like something out of David Bowie's "Labyrinth."  Next we went to the Xien Liep Cave.  There's no real road or path to the cave but a little boy appeared out of nowhere and beckoned us to follow him saying "cabe."  We followed out little tour guide through the woods for about 10 minutes.  Along the way he stopped to capture a pretty decent sized beetle which he peeled the wings and legs off of and ate.  Mmmmm.  After making our way across some fairly tricky and rocky terrain (which our 5 year old guide easily managed to we got to the opening of a large cave with a river running out of it.  Very cool.

We decided to take a few minutes to take in the scenery before heading back.  While resting Courtney taught our little guide some English words using the "Let's Speak Lao" guide we'd picked up in town.  He was quite the little student, Courtney wanted to take him home.

Our last stop was Pa Fa Cave - the Buddha Cave.  The cave was only discovered in 2004 by some guy looking for bats.  When he found it it had several hundred Buddha statues in it (hence the name).  Now Lao people and monks regularly go to the cave to pray.  To get to the cave we had to travel about 9km along a dirt road through a number of villages.  The road was pretty tough to drive on and every time a bike or car passed us we were covered in dust.  Great fun though.  Well, it was great fun until we were on our way back.  We got to the last turn before the main road and we ate dirt...literally.  We took the turn a bit wide and a bit too fast and before we knew it we were halfway down a ditch!  We were both fine save for a couple of scratches but the camera didn't make out so well.  Court had it out to take some photos of the scenery and unfortunately some dirt got in the lens as we went down.

All in all we had a great day and would definitely recommend it to anyone out in these parts....just remember to ease up off the gas as you get to the last bend on the dirt road coming back from the Buddha Cave.  Oh, and bring a little gift for the unofficial Xien Liep tour guide, you'll make his day.


Things we saw in Vientiane:

1. Vietnam Embassy
2. Super Minimart
3. Hospital
4. Pharmacy
5. Several bad movies on HBO Asia

Unfortunately we were still suffering from our stomach bugs so we didn't get a chance to get out much.  Luckily they'll sell you anything in the pharmacies here so we got ourselves some antibiotics and we're finally on the mend.

The VIP Bus

The VIP bus is anything but.  The only indication that it is in fact the VIP bus are the huge letters emblazoned across the front windshield that read "VIP."  The seats are all made of the plastic pleathery material that makes you sweat when hot, the seat numbers are scrawled in permanent marker on the backs of the seats, and the rest of the interior is in various states of disrepair.  As I write this an unknown liquid substance is dripping on me from a crack in the shelving above my seat.  Attempts to stem the flow of the dripping with the ugly green curtains have so far proved unsuccessful.

 A sarcastic thumbs-up from Court

Several of the windows are cracked from what appear to be bullet holes but are hopefully just from stones being thrown at the bus by kids as it passed through one of the many villages that line the road.  Probably not though. I'm pretty sure I saw one of the guys that loaded our bags onto the bus carrying some sort of machine gun over his shoulder, loosely concealed by his jacket, which seems to suggest that buses being shot at is not completely unheard of.

Bullet or rock?
Court is asleep next to me, mouth open wide, catching up on the sleep we missed out on last night on account of our 5am start to go and watch the monks receive their morning alms.  I don't know how she does it.  The roads are so windy and bumpy, I struggle just to stay upright in my seat.

I finished my book an hour ago and it looks like we still have several to go.  A stop for lunch was promised when we bought our ticket but I'm not so sure now as we pulled over a short distance back, apparently so that anyone needing to relieve themselves could do so in the bushes.  The break was not a moment too soon for one young Lao woman who proceeded to throw up several times on the ground beside the bus as she held her baby next to her so he could go potty.  Now there's some multitasking.

Looking around the bus to occupy myself I notice that the emergency hatch in the roof that is commonly found, and probably mandatory, on buses is sealed shut with what looks like a piece of kitchen countertop.  Also just noticed that the holder for the little hammer that is supposed to be used to break the window in an emergency is missing.  Apparently once you're on the VIP bus, you're on it.

The curtain seems to be holding for now but I fully expect it to collapse at some point, one drop too many, and soak me in my seat.  Court is still sleeping.  Lucky girl.  Maybe if I put the pen down I'll be able to catch a few winks before the curtain gives.

We've been on another VIP bus since this was written and it was sooo much better than this one.  The windows were in tact, seats comfy, no leaks, TV.  It even had a quite fetching design on the outside.  Apparently not all VIP buses are created equal.

Now THAT'S a VIP bus!