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Scooter Diaries: The Loop, Part 2

Wake up call: Day 2
Roosters, those bloody things haunted our sleep throughout farm-animal ridden Laos. No need for an alarm clock, as you knew that dawn would provoke a raucous welcome by the mangy birds. Day 2 began as predicted in just this fashion, along with the churn of long-boat motors as their diligent fishermen/women set off for the day's catch. To warm ourselves against the freezing morning, we swallowed some black coffee, as usual sweetened with half a cup of condensed milk, and by 8am were back on the road, wincing at the pain in our arses from yesterday's 8 hours of being molded to the scooter-seat. Little did we know that today would be a much more strenuous work-out.

With the sky a sullen gray, everything still looked very picturesque, with one minor problem. The cold. Over and over during the day we used the word 'neow' meaning 'freezing' in Laotian, and as the locals laughed it off, ecstatic that we were making an effort with the language, it was no laughing matter. The wind was biting, and as I huddled behind Matt on Miss Scarlet all I could think of 'please, please, please be a hot shower at the next place we stay'.

Hitting the off-road
The road cut between gleaming lakes, mirroring clearly the tall leafless trees strangely protruding from their depths. The road then turned into an off-roaders paradise, not a road as such, but a narrow dirt track winding within the overgrown jungle. This main 'highway' between Thalang and Lok Sao had more potholes than actual road, and lots of rolling mounds great for Matt to get both Miss Scarlet's wheel's off the ground. We had been warned that the majority of people doing The Loop broke down here, in the middle of nowhere, and horror stories included walking into the night to find the nearest repair shop. The ground beneath us changed from white, to yellow, to outback red; the trees either side of us were painted in a thin coat of red dust.

A peek at village life
Isolated villages comprising of leaning wooden planked houses passed us by, as did every breed of farm animal imaginable. At midday, we stopped at one of the remote villages, prising our frozen selves off the seat with the hope of getting a hot cup of coffee. After 10 minutes of trying to explain 'hot coffee' to the shop lady (she was nervous I think we may have been the first falaang ever to set foot in her shop), she hurried away with a kettle to her wee hut to boil us some water.

Meanwhile, the entire villages' child community had curiously crowded around, each one trying not to be the closest to us. Huge eyes in grubby faces were warily watchful that we didn't advance within a few metres otherwise they would either burst into tears or turn and run. Some time later we had started a game of 'don't let the falaang touch you' and we were chasing them between their rickety homes. One kid, who had smothered his face in yellow dust, we called 'Indian Chief', and managed to coax him in for a high-five, after which the others followed suit. Sitting nursing steaming coffees amongst these friendly villagers, getting a small glimpse at their lives, it felt like we were a world and a half away from our own technology-filled existences.

Another mental picture of tiny, furiously waving hands was taken, and we were back en-route to Konglor. Filling the bike for the equivalent of US$3 so there was no reason to stop, the road was literally straight on to the village. Emerging from the mountains, the 42km journey to tiny Konglor was flat, providing an easy view of the surrounding basin of limestone karsts. Minor roadblocks caused by mindlessly wandering cattle, pigs, water-buffalo, or goats were prevalent, the creatures playing 'chicken' with us by staring us down from the middle of the road until the very last second.

Reaching Konglor
We were welcomed to Konglor village by the waves of school kids riding home, nervously giggling when we yelled "Sabaai dee", in greeting. We stopped at the first decent looking guesthouse which was surprisingly modern and after confirming that hot water was available, we relieved our freezing limbs. Amongst the murmur of village noise we ticked off our 2nd whirlwind day on the road.

Posted by Wandering Kiwi 02:47 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Scooter Diaries: The Loop, Part 1

Tha Kaek, a town strung along a Mekong border with Thailand, also known for nothing except the firey sunsets over the rivers opposite bank (Thailand) and an infamous backpackers bible that lurks within the depths of Tha Kaek Travel Lodge. This mysterious book holds gold within it's covers; filled with hand-drawn maps, sketches, warnings and must-do's. Exclusive information about 'The Loop' that you will only ever find by reading it. This book guided us on an epic 3 days exploring the vast limestone karst encrusted landscape that is central Laos.

Tha Kaek would have been but a blip on our travel radar had it not been for the rumors of a 3 day adventure with nothing but a scooter, a map, and the open road. To make this happen we had to track down one Mr Ku, the key to all 'Loop' possibilities. Mr Ku, the kindly Laotion travel guide, with his crinkled blue suit and the biggest smile I've ever seen was the hero of the Bible, and all shout-outs went to him. He was to be found perched behind his desk in his wee office, at the entrance to Tha Kaek travel lodge. The Travel Lodge is a destination in itself, many travellers arriving to do The Loop, staying for a few days, and then moving on without so much as a look outside it's boundaries. Complete with a cheap and delicious restaurant, great outdoor seating, and a nightly campfire, it didn't leave much leeway to need to explore beyond.

With our scooter, endearingly named Miss Scarlet (christened later on due to her temperamental behavior), booked and ready for the next morning, we poured over the bible, noting down essentials on what to bring, what to see, and what to do while we were on the road. Packing was easy; a spare change of undies, a towel , and a toothbrush were the basis of it, and everything we thought we'd need was crammed into one half of a backpack (for 2 people; especially Matt, that is VERY light packing). In hindsight, we were being really stupid about not taking 'supplies', but never fear we are still alive and well.

Proudly astride Miss Scarlet, clipping on our helmets with flames (picked to trick everyone into thinking we are really speed demons), Mr Ku wished us luck, and with a few primary speed wobbles (Matt had never driven a manual scooter before), we were on the road out of Tha Kaek.

Fifteen minutes from the get go, the road was quiet and we were already surrounded on all sides by towering limestone karsts, huge towering cliffs hiding an amalgamation of caves and tunnels within. This was the first time we had encountered such entities and the only way I could describe it was like being on the set of Avatar's floating islands in Pandora. They rose as cliff's covered sparsely with trees growing straight outwards, looming staggered into the distance. The air was a reminder of NZ, amazingly fresh compared with the polluted cloud that hovered over Vietnam.

The first stop on our itinerary was a marked 'Buddha cave'. We turned off onto a dusty red road, adding to the vividness of natural colour. Parking Miss Scarlet, there was no a soul around. We crossed a shoddily made (but very authentic) bridge hovering over a shallow blue swamp/lake, and got the fright of our lives when we heard a shriek and saw a furry creature swinging straight toward us through the trees. A baby gibbon!! cheeky as hell and so adorable. He swung up onto the stairs leading to the cave, looked at us curiously, and then crept down to accept the food offerings that the ticket man had given us to feed him. Apparently rice wasn't satisfactory enough for the little fellow, as he then took to stealing chocolate bars from the confectionery lady who shooed him away with frustration. He must have been a regular visitor. Star-struck, I could have watched him all day, but we had a lot see! The cave was highly uninteresting, but was well worth it to see our little animal friend and the location.

Cave 2, Xieng Liab, was much more spectacular. Pulling up outside an airy wooden building set amongst jungle, we were quite startled when a group of kids of various ages poured out of the doorway. Turns out, we had interrupted their school lesson, and as we asked directions to the cave, a group of 6 boys skived off class to show us the way. It was for moments like this where I so badly wished I still had my camera. Our helmets had been helpfully taken from our grasp and were now wobbling on the heads of the youngest two, looking proportionately ridiculous but kept us in fits of laughter the whole way. Thanks to our chattering guides we waded across the river and crawled through small caved tunnels to find ourselves at a secret beach within the cave. At the opening, rocks hung like huge teeth within a cavernous mouth and the sun streamed through the jungle beyond, creating a dappled effect on the placid water beyond our little beach. Given 2 seconds to admire this, and we were taken out. 2 little bodies tackled me to the ground, Matt struggled to stay standing with 4 hanging from his arms and torso in an attempt to unbalance him. This game went on for a while, until they discovered we had lollies stashed in our bag. These were handed out and we decided to hit the road, bidding adieu to the kids waving frantically at us from their classroom doorway.

Covered in red dust and as the unrelenting heat bore down, it seemed like a perfect time to take a dip in the local watering hole. Again there was not a soul to be seen as the bike struggled down the sand-pitted road to the river. A small clearing was our only hint at the secluded pool below, and as we avoided the submerged fishing nets, took a plunge into its freezing depths. Later, basking like lizards on the heat-baked rocks I took another mental picture (the first being the helmet heads). Hard to fathom we were in the middle of one of the poorest countries in the world in an untapped paradise.

After dining on a steaming bowl of Pho (noodle soup) next to a local monk, the afternoon was filled with more cave explorations, welcomed into one by a smiling green buddha and finding a shimmering silver lake in its depths, another was filled with fairy lights leading the way. By 3pm the cold was starting to freeze our hands to the bike handles, and mentally kicking ourselves for not bringing any warm clothes we dodged the potholes as quickly as possible (by now we were really in unexplored territory) arriving at Thalang with the sun setting over the lake. Our bungalow, it's turquoise green an eye-sore in stark contrast to the nearby local wooden stilt houses, screamed 'tourists sleep here'. It hung alongside 3 other identical rooms over a lake filled with local fishing 'longboats', a group of kids playing on the opposite bank interrupted their singing to excitedly wave and shout 'sabaii dee, sabaii dee!!!!' when they spotted us.

Day one drew to an end enjoying sweet tea with our Laotion host, feet toasting above burning coals, sharing stories of the day with an Aussie couple and 2 Belgians on the same journey.

Posted by Wandering Kiwi 02:46 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

The wheels on the bus sometimes go round and round

South East Asian buses just HAVE to have a post dedication. We have experienced some truly white-knuckling rides in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos and it's safe to say this is probably the general trend all over the sub-continent. They really are in a league of their own. As are the drivers of the said buses.

Criteria for a SEA local bus includes;
Seats made to fit 12 year olds, Space in the isle set aside for animals, motorbikes, food and other miscellaneous objects, Stops every 50m to pick up and drop people off (because local people do not like to use their legs), Extra plastic chairs to be set up in the isle when (not if, but when) the seats are filled, Air-con turned on full when it's freezing and no amount of fiddling with the dials will turn it off, No air-con when it's stifling hot Windows that open just enough for the snack ladies chasing the bus to pass items such as drinks, fruit, books and Valium through and receive payment. Blankets only large enough to cover the top half of your body, leaving the blasting air-con to freeze away your feet all night, Not enough blankets so it is a game to see who's quick enough to grab the blanket from the seat behind them after every pee and food stop, and who bickers the loudest over it. We choose to endure these journeys, which often take hours longer than the VIP tourist buses, because they are half the price, and twice the entertainment. Luckily, because we are falaang, we generally get a seat, and a blanket, but everything else is luck of the draw.

Our very first Thai Bus journey, from Suphan Buri (district where our school was), to Chiang Mai, was one that we will always treasure. It was 1.30am, and bus after bus after bus had passed our connecting destination, with no space available (even though we had purchased a genuine ticket). Four hours of waiting, and Matt was almost ready to use the ticket guy as a punching bag when the last bus of the night/very early morning rolled in. The driver jumps down and frantically waves us over, in my eyes he was wearing a halo, and thanking him profusely we walked to the luggage hold to dump our bags, ready to go catch some much needed sleep in the spacious looking seats above. However the driver still had the luggage door open, looking at us expectantly, and yes, he did expect that we would not kick up a fuss at having to spend the night in a windowless compartment with our bags. No happy with this situation, we bargained to share 1 seat crammed in next to the driver, having to endure the screech of a female thai voice blaring from his radio.

Our latest route was also a memorable one, only in the fact that we were on the bus for over 30 hours on a standard 20 hour trip. The Hanoi to Vientiane passage is said to be 'nightmarish' and we surely did get a taste. Finally leaving Hanoi at 7pm, after waiting 2 hours to be led to the bus, we were guided to the back where there were 8 reclining seats, conveniently located behind one another, so the people at the very back had to gingerly climb over the travelers in front to get out, good start!

2 hours later, there was a small explosion from under the bus, and we rolled to a stop, half on, and half off the road. The drivers at once got to work on the problem, the motto being explicitly D.I.Y, and an hour later we were on the road again. It wasn't surprising we'd blown a tire, the road was horrendously filled with pot-holes and large boulders that had us swerving violently all over the place.

Awaking the next morning at 7am we were wondering just how we had been able (for the first time) to sleep comfortably through the night..this never happens! First blurred inspection of the outside world was that we weren't moving, second was that we were in the middle of no-where, and third was that our drivers were sound asleep in the isle. After a few questions and rumors flew round the passengers we concluded that we had in fact broken down at 11pm and it was too dark for Mr Fixit to get fixing, so 12 hours later, we were only 4 hours from Hanoi. Another 4 hours and we were on the road again, thankfully arriving in Vientiane without any more mishaps.

These minor hindrances aside, there is nothing more adrenalin pumping than the driving style of the local bus/van drivers. There is no such thing as cautious driving, even on pot-marked, unpaved roads. Overtaking on blind corners is a given, sheer cliff edges on either side has no influence on the frequency of this. The horn is used every few seconds as a way of letting other vehicles know that 'WE ARE COMING, WATCH OUT ', this is very disturbing during over-night buses, hence the no sleep. Lack of visibility such as fog or mist does not alter driving speed whatsoever, neither does oncoming traffic when driving in the wrong lane. Seat gripping and nervous 'phews' are commonly heard reverberating around the bus, followed by nervous laughter..until the next corner.

As I have mentioned in a previous post, since travelling the roads of SEA, we now have our funerals well prepared. They are the one thing that we certainly won't miss when we are back on nice, smooth, tar-sealed New Zealand roads.

Posted by Wandering Kiwi 02:45 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

La Vida Loca in Vang Vieng

'In the tubing - Vang Vieng' is a phrase plastered all over the wearable merchandise filling wee shops that line the streets of the backpacker haunt in Vang Vieng. It doesn't even make sense! 'In the tube' maybe, or 'Tubing in Vang Vieng'; needless to say every second person wandering the streets was proudly adorning the slogan, claiming the fact that 'Yes, I have been tubing in Vang Vieng' and can now be classified as a 'true' backpacker.

So, the question is...was it all it's cracked up to be? And I'd have to say..bloody oath it was!! Take a tube, a semi-fast flowing river, hundred's of young attractive bikini and boardy-clad individuals, gigantic (and totally un-OSH-worthy) slides and trapeze swings, and throw some alcohol in the mix, and it's like a 7km long playground for big kids. Well, to be fair, Matty and I only made it about 300 metres before we got sidetracked by mud-volleyball, tug-of-war, and trying to help a writhing girl who had had waaaay too many free snake-whisky shots.

We were previously warned of the waste in paying ridiculous amounts for a tube as we were sure to only make it a little way down the river. Casually dismissing it with proud claims that no, we would be getting our money's worth by floating the whole way down was a mistake. A lesson to all..THIS DOES NOT HAPPEN. When are you ever going to be able to plummet 3 metres into tube infested waters after downing round after round of delectably repulsive lao lao? Many times aparently as the people across the river yell.."This is my 4th day and I'm still going strong!!'

With people crammed onto 'bars' that were really just bamboo platforms, legs dangling over the water some meters below, cheering with passion as the ones who had had a little more to drink attempted somersaults and dive-bombs, local kids hung around the watery entrances to the bars armed with coke bottles on string ready to throw out to anyone that was floating past. It really was a unique party location. Limestone karsts covered with wild jungle rose from the river that wound lazily with rice paddies and Vang Vieng town on the opposite bank. Surprisingly, and also a god-sent, the noise from the raucous booze-hags was trapped within the river banks, and so the centre of town was quiet and thus enabled swift next-day recovery. So, without shoes or a top which had been misplaced somewhere along the way ( I did have a bikinion however), we tuk-tuked back to town with high hopes for a bit of a night out. But this wasn't to be as the cheap whisky had hit home and all we were good for was snoring.
Even though tubing was an absolute blast, and seems to have accounted for putting Vang Vieng (and possibly Laos) on the backpacking tourist trail, there was so much more to the little town that could be found with the help of a sturdy motorbike and a map. The town is set within a half bowl of karsts, with the river running through leaving a perfect setting for riverside guesthouses, bars and restaurants which complement an extraordinary view of the surrounding mountains, and the local kids gathering river weed in the afternoons. An extremely rickety bamboo bridge crookedly provides a route over the river to little bungalows and a dirt trail that leads through rice-fields up a small but stubbornly steep mountain. I attempted this climb in jandals, which wasn't a good idea, but the view from the top was exquisite. After clambering back down, I was waved over by the local 'mountain-minding' guy who was nursing a fire with some sort of meat on it. Via a short game of charades, I managed to decipher that he had just caught a snake from the jungle and was now inviting me to eat it with him, an invitation that was well received on my part.

After an attempt at biking the dusty, stone-covered roads between the karsts a little out of the city back-fired, we hired a scooter for the 7km out to Poukham Caves and it's Blue Lagoon. Along the way, the town turned into village, which turned into leaning huts scattered sparsely among the coconut and banana trees. Home-made painted signs sprouted up on every corner, advertising 'Big, good caves and swimmings', we ventured to a few which were narrow and dark and definitely not for the claustrophobic, winding deep into the karsts with not a pinprick of light. Poukham cave was a gem of a find, a gigantic cavern, the floor was meter high boulders that we had to pick our way up and around. We could hear eery echo's from others deeper within the cave, which was damp, warm and pitch black. Being the type to invent crazy beings creeping up behind me in the dark, we didn't stay long, but enough to admire the jagged roof and darkened secret corridors disappearing to who knows where.

Back out in the sunshine, we tested the freezing water of the Blue Lagoon (which really was an amazing bright blue) by pinning off a tree branch perfectly grown as a diving board. In town that night (like most nights and sometimes during the day) we relaxed in one of the many low-tabled, cushion filled restaurants, which all play re-runs of Friends and Family Guy all day and night. $1 filled baguettes and smoothies also filled our days, with trips at 3pm to our favorite fresh spring roll man at the local market (we once went at 5 and he was sold out!!).

Before we knew it, we had been in Vang Vieng for 6 nights and wondering why the hell we were still there, grabbed a bus up to the city that Laotians hold close to their hearts, Luang Prabang.

Posted by Wandering Kiwi 02:45 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Hailing in 2011 in Halong bay

Still recovering from our strenuous Mt Fansipan climb, and with the clock ticking ever closer to 2011, on the 31st we chugged back to Hanoi and pretty much jumped straight onto our organised tour of Halong Bay. Along with a Singaporean family, a Malaysian family, and a Cambodian family, we boarded our luxury 'junk' boat. Just to clarify, the boat is not made from or look like 'junk' as the name may imply, but is an ancient Chinese sailing vessel design and our modern form was a floating mini boutique hotel. A restaurant with a 20 seat table was located grandly on the main deck, it's windows giving us a 270 degree view of our watery surrounds. Above deck, sun-loungers soaked up the fresh air, too bad it was the middle of Vietnamese winter, and too cold to show much skin, but it was a great vantage point for gazing at the 1000's of limestone karsts within Halong bay.

The looming jungle speckled 'islands' (limestone karsts) sat staggered behind one another as far as the eye could see. Green green ocean lapped against their vertical walls and the sides of our boat as we cruised quietly between them. As our Junk entered the cove with the 'The Amazing Cave', we realised we would not be exploring this cave alone. Also docked in the little bay were 100 other large Junk's - just like ours!! Disappointed, we wound through the cave mostly in single file at a crawl with the other millions of camera happy tourists trying to get the perfect photo. The impressiveness of the cave was dulled down by the roped off walkway cut into the floor, and the coloured lights bouncing unnaturally off the stalactites and stalagmites.

The setting sun hung a huge florescent red above the water, and because we had waited in line for what seemed like hours in the cave, kayaking time was cut to a strict 45 minutes. Back in the boat Tom, Matt and I had our bottle of vodka 'cleverly' mixed in a coke bottle, and proceeded to get quickly and not so quietly intoxicated, our friendly families choosing the fishing option. By 9pm, the karaoke had started, and brilliantly sung classics such as 'Hotel California' and 'Sitting on the dock of the bay' (no pun intended) were heard blasting from our deck. Fishing was abandoned, coloured strobe light turned on, and everyone on board, including the crew was singing (in various languages) into the last hours of 2010.

Midnight came and went with CAKE (yussss), red wine and an amusing spectacle that involved Matt sending waves through the bay and he undressed, dodged the 'i'm not happy about this' captain, and dive-bombed into the freezing water below. Too bad he didn't remember it in the morning, luckily our friend Jess managed to catch in on camera.

January 1st and the sky was dangerous grey, the water was not so green, and the air was a lot colder. One of the few inhabited islands, Cat Ba Island was our next destination, and began with a short (but again strenuous) trek, our guide was more monkey-like than human-like as he spent most of the time shimmying up trees, checking to see if everyone was up with the pace. We spent the afternoon, night and next day wiling away the hours on bikes, lazing on the beach under a sullenly grey sky (not fair it's supposed to be HOT!), eating and sleeping. In other words, non of us were overly impressed with the goings on at Cat Ba.

Heading back to the mainland we all agreed that Halong Bay (sadly) was probably the greatest disappointment of our trip. To be fair, we hadn't know what to expect but ratings from other backpackers had been through the roof, and we just couldn't figure out why ours had been such a let down. Maybe it was the hours of waiting for transport here and there, lots of transit and not actually doing a whole lot, and maybe the weather. However, it was such a privilege to be able to celebrate the New Year with such great people from around the world, and that night was definitely a special one. By the time we got back to Hanoi, we were well ready for some Bia Hoi !!!

Posted by Wandering Kiwi 02:44 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

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