So on a lovely sunny Monday morning (yes quite the contrast to the dull rainy Monday mornings we all so dread back home), we were up with the birds at the crack of dawn and began our cycle to the Cambodian/ Laos border after a wonderful breakfast overlooking the Mekong. Fueled for the day, we took a small dirt path to the border which we crossed with ease (of course, after paying the obligatory ‘processing fees’ *cough cough*) and we were in Laos by 8.30am, very smug with our easy border crossing yet again. One of the big benefits of travelling by bike is that you can arrive at border posts, or anywhere else for that matter, at any time you like – you are not restricted by bus or train times and so can take great pleasure in avoiding the huge crowds and queues.
We then had a lovely touristy day stopping off at Khone Phapheng Falls. For those too lazy to walk 100m to see the falls, yes that would be us, you can get in an electric car and brrr down there. Absolutely unnecessary but also absolute bliss! We admired the falls – lots of water volume as they are the largest in Southeast Asia and are the main reason that the Mekong is not fully navigable into China – but our hearts were back up the slope at the orchid bedecked cafe, complete with Christmas tree, fixated on strawberry and yogurt frappuccinos. So we indulged our hearts’ desires!
Next stop were the four thousand islands. As we rolled down to the ferry port to get across to the islands, crowds of backpacking tourists appeared; all dressed the same looking very hot and bothered. We rapidly decided to avoid party island Don Det and went straight to Don Som, a local island, which we cycled up to get to Don Khong and one of the loveliest guesthouses we stayed at; a wooden house on stilts with Japanese style matting and paper on the walls. We found out that yet again we’d just missed the week-long festival culminating in boat races so the town had an air of exhaustion and everyone had left; we therefore sat alone in the river side restaurant eating fruit and pancakes.
The next day we headed across the island and Lucy joined in with the boat women pulling us across the river so we could cycle on the back routes via the UNESCO heritage site Wat Phu to Champasak. We had a quick sprint (much to our knees disgust) to get to Wat Phu after a much needed extended lunch stop and arrived just in time to plead with the museum staff to let us in. Our smiles and pleading looks worked, or maybe it was pity, or perhaps fear at the sight of our sweaty dirty bodies but we were allowed a quick five minute dash around the museum.
Luckily, the Wat itself was open to visitors for another couple of hours so we could take our time marvelling at its beauty. It was incredible. Rediscovered by our friends – the French Mekong Commission – it amazingly formed part of the Khmer empire, dating back to the 11th century, and was designated as a world heritage site in 2001. It is built on a hill and merges into the landscape perfectly, consumed by nature with stunning views out across the Mekong.
We noticed the frangipani trees lining the staircase up to the temple are apparently the perfect spot to do some posing and take selfies – we just hope she gets the modelling job as a great deal of effort were going into the photos.
Champasak is a lovely town right on the Mekong with old colonial buildings that, unlike those in Cambodia, are in good condition. Sadly, Lucy’s time is running out so it’s all about getting as far up the country as possible before she leaves on the 15th. Therefore, we saw Champasak at dawn having arrived the night before and longed to stay longer.
From Champasak we began our 120km days. We are very proud of ourselves – it’s only taken five weeks to nail this cycling business! Up at 5am, then 30km before breakfast, another 40km then coffee, another 20 to 30kms till 1300, then lunch till 1430, and then attempt to do 30k after. It’s had various levels of success i.e. we finish in various states of deadness… Tash also found drinking beer, offered by the Office for Environment football team, in mid-afternoon heat then cycling does weird things to your head….
Lunch that afternoon was a hoot. Hot and bothered, Tash was withering away in the midday heat so we needed to find something to eat and fast. We stopped at the first noodle soup cafe we could find and ended up eating with a right old comical bunch. One of the old men was as tall as Tash’s waist and his thighs were the size of our arms. His friends found the whole thing hilarious and were in stitches as Tash and him chatted away and he admired her biceps. Naturally, lots of photos were taken which amused his friends (and me) even more.
The first night we died outside a shop. Tash ate two whole packets of biscuits, a coffee and coke before Lucy decided it would be a better idea to finally use the tent we’ve, actually Tash, has lugged across three countries rather than push on. The store owners wouldn’t hear of it, apparently snakes take a fancy to unwary campers in back yards, so we were ushered into the garage to sleep in the shop owner’s nephews pad. Lucy on a sun lounger, Tash on the floor getting to use the roll mat she has also been lugging round!
As always things become interesting. We discover ‘Nephew’, who will remain unnamed, is a wood trafficker; buying wood from Thailand and shipping it across the border into Laos and then across to the Vietnamese border where he can acquire double the price. And no! Of course he doesn’t sell Laos trees – that is illegal and you can go to jail and get fined for it! His mate, ironically a ranger in the forestry department, agreed with this synopsis as we all sat eating fried rice and drinking beer. “This is why I live in the garage so i can look after the wood,” he tells us. His actual house was in the nearby town, from the photos empty but for a huge chandelier and, naturally, wood panelled walls and staircase. His two cars sat outside. “Just like yours in England,” we were told. Uh no, not quite, our Ford Focus and Toyota Yaris don’t quite match up to your two plush hyundai 4×4 pick-ups! Laos seems to only have motorbikes and 4 x 4s in it. The number of normal cars we’ve seen so far can be counted on two hands.
Lucy discovered in her chat with him that he follows the Environmental Investigation Agency on facebook and we watched in amazement at the irony of an illegal rosewood dealer scrolling down his news feed to keep abreast with the latest updates on the status of rosewood trafficking, remaining well well-informed of price changes or clamp downs….. He’s making a great deal of cash and business is clearly booming; whilst we were tucked up in our sleeping bags, a Vietnamese couple popped in to seal a deal. His next plan is to go on to study for a master’s in business studies ….