Le Tour de Mekong - Cambodia & Laos

Trip Start Jan 17, 2010
Trip End Jul 17, 2010

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Saturday, May 22, 2010

I forgot to mention in the last entry that if one thing stood out and made the Temples of Angkor so incredible it was the bewildering lack of any kind of restricted access - you could literally scramble all over them if you wanted - unthinkable these days in the west at somewhere like Stonehenge. I couldn't help but wonder whether the clambering contributed to the crumbling and creaking though. Speaking of Stonehenge I had a chuckle (not to mention a bit of a double-take) when our excellent guest house in Siem Reap had a picture of the aforementioned 'henge as their desktop background on the communal PC; despite being a couple of miles away from one of the iconic heritage sites of the world, they'd chosen a few dull and frankly disappointing West Country hippy pillars to view with their g-mail in the morning.

I managed to catch England's victory in the World Cup cricket final - explaining cricket to Cambodians proved an ultimately useless if rather entertaining task - and celebrated with rather too many super-sized Angkor beers. The following morning Kanan and I made our way North East to Compong Cham - a provincial, godforsaken river town with little to recommend it but a hugely impressive, seasonally constructed (from scratch) bamboo bridge - on some painfully cramped local transport. As my hangover ruled out any onward travel (Kanan firmly told me after 5 hours that I was not providing her with enough stimulus), we found a place to stay until I'd recovered from the torture of the 7 hour bus ride, and removed the dribble/sweat from my clothing.

We left for Kratie (further north towards the Laos border) the following morning, a joyful couple of hours spent in some surprisingly sleek transport, and arrived in time for an afternoon cycle ride - the first of five consecutive days spent exploring the Mekong with the power of pedals. It didn't start off two well. Owing to a predictable puncture on Kanan's bike - the "roads" being more akin to dirt tracks, and the bikes more suited to lazy French back alleys - and after only 2km of the road, we were forced to wheel to the nearest pagoda. Here, a willing, helpful (not to mention entrepreneurial) 6 year old girl offered to take the bike and fix the hole or less than 50p. I passed the hour or so wait entertaining (more height-related hilarity) the locals trying to prise strange fruit from their abundant orchards - with limited success - and partaking in a spot of equally fruitless marbles with some feral river-dwelling 5 year-olds. Nevertheless we were given a friendly cheer when we were off and running again, having been accorded a private viewing of the restored pagoda interior (following a few pone calls and a half hour wait to locate the key). We progressed a bit further down the dirt track until we came upon a floating village. I declined the offer from the local fishermen of a mid-afternoon beer or three on the grounds of the effect of the already unstable road and bike on my bladder and balance, and we headed back home through the dust and rubble.

After a sleep punctuated by screaming French babies and their errant late-night-DVD-watching-outside-our-room parents (who felt my wrath at 2am) we set off on another two-wheeled adventure. We arrived at the town boat jetty, hoping to catch the ferry across the Mekong to the Island opposite, and were met with shrugs of the shoulders by the few locals stretched out on benches under parasols, avoiding the sun. One even pointed at the sun, following its projected course by way of indicating the wait which lay in store for us. We spent an entertaining hour watching 3 men carry a basket of 5 pigs up about 100 steps of the pier - most of the town stopped by at some point to proffer a view on the best pig-transportation techniques (including a ill-fated bamboo stretcher intervention) and for an oggle at us - from the river below. Some time later, in lazy Mekong village fashion, we boarded the boat for the 2 minute trip across the water. We were greeted by an Island bereft of cars and electricity and bountiful in butterflies (see pics) and simple village life. Everywhere we went shrill screamed greetings of "helllllaw" welcomed us from under shady trees, the recesses of stilt houses and children playing in the river water. That night I had to reprimand the french DVD swines again, patient at first, i flew into a rage later when met with a caricatured shrug of the shoulders; so we were a little bleary-eyed when we caught the bus the following morning to cross the border into Laos.

I guess one of the paradoxes of independent travel is that by traveling by your own means you hope to discover everything with new eyes, and be the only witness to the events unfolding on you trip, whilst at the same time there are a hundred other people with the same fancy idea as you. And so you find yourselves inevitably standing in a crowd of western white people photographing the same battalion of monks - or some-such - having all travlled there "independently", yet feeling no less like a tourist than when sharing a bus with the Japanese on a whistle-stop tour of Bath. So as we approached the guidebook defined "road less traveled" border between Laos and Cambodia we were disappointed, but not surprised, to join a (relative) throng of backpackers queuing for visa stamps, with not a truck full of the hoped-for quarantined chickens in sight. It was a painless transit in all though, and via a change of bus we arrived at the jetty for Si Phan Don (4000 Islands) in Laos.

Any vain insecurities that lingered over being "independent travelers" soon dissipated as the our 18 or so backpacker peers were herded into a boat headed for Don Vet Island, leaving just Kanan and I with a wrinkly old chap and his boat headed for the quieter (road less traveled) Island of Don Khon. According to the locals the effect of the troubles in Thailand are having a serious impact on Laos tourism, and we were one of only a handful of visitors on Don Khon. We spent three days cycling through beautiful countryside, swimming in freshwater rivers, bathing in natural jacuzzi at the top of waterfalls shrouded in the mystery of local legends, and spotting the critically endangered Irrawaddy Dolphin (see pics). The only downside to all this was having to nurse the effect of the horrendous broken-stone dirt raods has had on our unconditioned arses. Spare a thought for Kanan particularly, who has only really learned to cycle (properly) over the last few days. She's now a free-wheeling, hands-free mountain-biking kind of girl. As an aside, I had a stark reminder the other day of quite how much time Kanan and I have spent together: whilst swimming in a quiet spot in the Mekong, she asked me if I had "gaffled" (a term for stealing/mugging in 1990s gangsta rap) all the drinking water. Truly we are becoming the same person.

We arrived here in Pakse (150 km further noth in Laos) this afternoon. We're planning a three day motorbike trip tomorrow around the Bolaven Plateau - we'll leave most of our bags at a hotel here in Pakse and set out with a map and a small rucksack into the mountain wilderness where we hope more stunning waterfalls and tribal villages lie in store. And some sealed roads wouldn't go amiss either.

Hope everyone back home is well.

Jo (and Kanan) X

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