Hello all, hope you are all well and having fun. It's been nearly a month since my last update. mainly because I've been travelling in some kinda remote areas where net access is not possible or is just bloody expensive and slow.
Things have been pleasant but quite unexciting. I thin this is mainly because I've been travelling with other people rather than alone so I haven't had anywhere near the usual amount of strangeness. The following is high on detail and probably low on entertainment.
So, I finally got moving out of Vientiane a couple of days after my last mail. I headed south to Savanaket with an English couple from my guest house (Steve and Sam). We got to the bus station at about 8am early enough to get seats on the 10am bus, in fact so early that before we realised what exactly was happening we were shoved onto the 8am bus which still hadn't left and so we got no seats! We ended up taking a 10 hour bus journey on plastic stools in the middle of the aisle!! Luckily I had brought my inflatable headrest thingy so I blew that up to give my bum some relief. The locals thought that was pretty funny, they also thought it was pretty funny when they drove off without us while we were coming back from the toilet. That was our gobshite driver's fault. He was also responsible for the 3 enormous speakers bolted to the sides so that the he could blare his awful taste in Thai/Lao music at the passengers. Unfortunately Lao people are too polite to complain but they did cheer quietly a couple of times when the music cut out. On the occasions when the music wasn't too loud we managed to have a bit of a laugh with the locals and they gave us various bits of local food to try and we gave them Pringles and sweets and other traditional western health foods.
That night in Savanket I got a bit adventurous and ordered "wild fox" and chips! As I kinda expected, it involved picking not very much meat from a lot of very small bones but it was an opportunity I had to take. In the main, it wasn't that nice, but a couple of pieces were the dog's bollocks... sorry, the joke had to be made.
Up at 5:15am to do another couple of hundred Ks on the world's dustiest road. They're upgrading the old road but rather than do it a bit at a time, they've got most of the road almost finished. It just needs to be sealed. So they've got about 100km of perfectly flat road that you're not allowed drive on! You have to drive along the dusty dirt track diversion that runs beside it! Will they manage to get the whole thing sealed before it's all washed away by the monsoon in a month or two. I'm betting they won't.
In this part of Laos, there seems to be some sort of food vendors union. When you arrive at any particular town, gangs of women and children start violently poking food in the bus windows at you. The strange thing is that each town offers only one kind of food. So in one place you have the choice of several hundred corn on the cob thingies, next place everyone's selling chicken livers on a stick. When I finally came to somewhere that seemed to be selling just plain old chicken on a stick I was delighted and snapped it up. Turns out I'd just bought a whole flattened baby chicken, head, neck, wings claws, the whole lot! Being a bit of a picky eater, I released it back into the wild almost as soon as I realised what was going on.
After all that, we arrived in Pakse a big town in the south of Laos. This is where I encountered the first effort to rip me off in Laos (if you don't count people just plain stealing my clothes). We bargained with some old git of a boat driver to go to Champasak for 6 dollars. I overheard him tell his friend on the boat that we were paying 7 and when we got there he started looking for 7. He called his mates over but we basically told them he was a lying git that he could stick it up his arse and we walked off. I wonder how often it works though. A dolar may not semm much but it's the principal of the thing and also, the same boat trip 2 years ago cost 2 dollars, so you're already being fleeced enough.
We were there to see the ruins of Wat Phou, an 11th century temple. It's nice and in a beautiful setting but quite a lot of it has collapsed or has been stolen, so it's not that impressive. Luckily, on the way, I noticed a mountain that looked quite like a breast with a big nipple on the top and from certain angles, the whole range of mountains looked like a naked woman lying down, so it wasn't a wasted trip!
The next day, Steve and Sam headed off to Si Phan Don - 4000 Islands - an upcoming resort in the south of Laos. I was going there too but decided to take a side trip to Attapeu - the garden city. Many thousands of years ago, when the first Lao people arrived there, they asked the natives (who were Khmers - Cambodians) "what's this called?", they said "Iktapu" and over time the name became Attapeu. Unfortunately the Khmers thought the Lao were pointing at a pile of buffalo shit rather than the town. So I was on the 7:30am to Buffalo Shit.
This was a fairly scary bus. Someone had taken a normal flat backed truck and put a roof and seats on it the same way we might put shelves up at home. The difference is that we wouldn't load 2 tonnes of rice and assorted other crap onto our shelves and then drive them at 60 MPH over a road that only exists for 6 months of the year. I was quite glad when that 6 hours was up.
Attapeu is a beautiful town with very friendly people, except for the tuk-tuk driver who also thought it would be fun to agree to one price and then demand another when we arrived. My fellow passengers weren't bothered arguing and payed the extra but after the boatman, I wasn't having any of it. I found out from some other tourists that he had done the same thing to them. Worse, they only went with him because he undercut another driver and worse still, they payed him what he asked. I can understand him ripping off us but the little scumbag is robbing business from his fellow drivers. Very low.
Attapeu is a beautiful relaxing town (although it does have the highest rate of malaria in Laos!) and as far as I can tell Attapeu is the only place in Laos where you can find proper road markings. There's a junction which has lanes for going straight and going left and the markings are in perfect condition, presumably because there aren't any cars and maybe about 2 tuk-tuks and some mopeds, none of which pay any attention to the markings. I'd love to know how they got there.
Attapeu is right beside the Ho Chi Min trail, which was used by the North Vietnamese to attach the South Vientamese. I read a really good book about the American secret bombing of Laos. It seems the Americans were actually helping the Laos people defend against the Vietnamese's secret invasion of their country. Laos is the most bombed country in the world. During that secret war, more tons of bombs were dropped on Laos than in the entire 2nd world war! But the bombs were actually dropped in cooperation with the government and military, so it's not quite the evil America story that it is sometimes made out to be. Attapeu somehow managed not to get blown to shit by all this despite many nearby towns being toasted. It also suffered very little damage in the "battle of Attapeu". The Royal Lao Army seem to have been incredibly shite. They were unwilling to take any risks at all and when the Vietnamese revealed that their troops would be in Attapeu in about 5 days, the Lao Army did a runner and the battle was won without a single shot being fired. There were also a couple of battles where they held their ground until the first shot was fired or until one of the tank drivers revved the engine. Not very impressive really.
Anyway, I didn't have time to go and see all the war scrap that's in the mountains near Attapeu as I was on the 7:30 back to Pakse the next day. I never thought it could happen in Laos but this bus was actually full. Almost every bus I took was full by western standards, things are a little less comfortable over here, people have to sit on plastic stools or cling to the roof which means that there's always room for one more on top (as the actress said to the bishop!). However. for the first time, I heard them tell someone "sorry, we're full". It was only a little old lady, I'm sure they could have squeezed her under the drivers seat or something but alas no, she was left to wait for the next homemade death trap.
Thailand is called "The land of smiles", I have decideed that Laos should be called "The land of staring babies". Kids on buses will just stare and stare and stare, it's incredible, you can see it in the photos of kids on buses I took. Speaking of which, I've developed about 400 photos so hopefully I'll manage to scan some in and lob them onto the web shortly.
Straight after my 6hr trip, I took a 4hr truck ride to get to Don Det island. I used to think a bus to Cork was a big deal...
Just before this drive, there was a pretty large dust whirlwind wandering around the market in Pakse. It was the third I'd seen in 2 days, I didn't know they had them down here, they're cool. I really wanted to jump into the middle of it just to see what it was like but I reckon dirty and not that exciting would probably be the answer. On this trip the food on offer was a little more varied and included bats and what I'm pretty sure was a squirrel. Needless to say I didn't partake. Apparently the only thing Lao people won't eat are the fresh water "irrawady" dolphins that live in that region. They believe they are human fish.
Don Det is one of those places that has just been discovered by travellers. Apparently last year there were 4 guest houses on the island, this year there are 20 and more under construction. For the first night, I ended up sleeping with the guest house owner's family as there were no rooms left on the island, apparently it's quite common to do this. The next night, some people had to pitch a tent on the beach. What's the attraction? For $1 per day you get a bamboo hut with a double bed and 2 hammocks overlooking the Mekong river as it spreads out to 14km wide and meanders through the 4000 islands. Don Det is also known for making the best Lao Lao (rice whiskey) in Laos and at about 70 cents for a bottle (beer is 80!) it's pretty good value - "smooth and mellon" as it says on the label! You can also go and see fresh water dolphins, go and meet the villagers on some small islands, go to 2 waterfalls (one of which is the biggest in Asia) and cross the slightly dodgy border into Cambodia. I was in a bit of a rush, so I did all of these in 2 days, probably some sort of record.
I was getting some funny looks (mainly from water buffalo) as I did a 1 hour speed walk at noon from the waterfall back to the beach. I was heading on a boat trip with 4 Germans, so being late was not an option. It was pretty cool, we met villagers and monks, we got some fruit from an old womand we met. I gave her an orange in return and she hadn't a clue what to do with it! I just assumed she'd have seen one before. We also got to see how they make noodles. It's cool and the rice paste they use is the gooiest stickiet substance I've ever seen. It'd be fantastic for a fight!
The trip to see the dolphins was a bit depressing, we only saw 3 and they were about 400m away. We did however find a dead baby dolphin floating in the water. It had been killed by a fishing net. Like I said, they don't eat them but sometimes they get caught in nets. Fishing with dynamite was also popular in Cambodia for a while and of course it used to get quite a few dolphins too. I think it's stopped now. They were down to 10 dolphins in this area a few years ago but the guide said that the numbers have been increasing again over the last few years. I couldn't help wonder how Lek would react to a dead baby dolphin!!
I was coming towards the end of my trip to Laos and I was quite sad. I'd had a really good time and my Lao language skills were really getting somewhere, although I am known as "Mr Tired Penis" to the locals on Don Det after a slight misunderstanding! I had to leave because I was rushing. I had arranged to meet Corina (the German girl I travelled with in Laos the first time) in Phnom Penh in a few days. So I decided to try cross the not quite official border. I found out that a group of 9 people were crossing, so I was well pleased. Turns out the dolphin sight seeing involves making a brief excusion to Cambodia and then they were all coming back again! So I was actually the only one staying across the border. When they were all heading back to the islands, they were all saying goodbye and wishing me good luck and looking at me like I was mad and was never going to be seen again... I was thinking similar thoughts myself. There'd been an election the day before and the results would be coming out that night. Rumour had it that the border with Thailand had been closed for a day due to outbreaks of violence but I'd read and been told that a couple of people cross this in either direction every day and that things were fine and dandy in Cambodia these days.
I arrived late in the evening, so I was stamped out of Laos but couldn't get stamped into Cambodia. I spent my first night there as an illegal alien! This wouldn't have bothered me if I hadn't told anyone but, like a tool, I did. So I spent a good chunk of that night worrying that the immigration police would come knocking on my door (which had no lock!) and demand that I give them all my money just so I don't end up in a Cambodian jail. It didn't happen, in fact everyone there was very nice and I had a nice dinner and breakfast with a team of surveyors who are marking out the border with Laos. I also took this opportunity to sew some missing buttons back onto my trousers. I did this in full view of the guests in an effort to emphasise my poverty and persuade them that trying to extort money from me would be pointless. The things you think of when you're stressed!
The guys who were marking the border were around for the whole Pol Pot thing. One has an 8 year old child and he says that the young people, including his kid don't believe the mad stuff that happened, they think it's all just made up. A little disturbing.
It cost me $25 in "special payments", on top of the $35 I paid for my Cambodian visa, to get from Laos to Cambodia but it was interesting and I had a very enjoyable boat ride with 2 police men down to Stung Treng from the border. It was my last few hours speaking Lao, they were really nice and we managed to have something approaching a chat. I took a photo and told them I'd send them a copy. They were pretty happy to be in a photo and (still in my paranoid state) I figured it was a good way to discourage them from stealing my camera! Not sure how paranoid that was but after my next meeting with a border guard, I think it may have been a good move, see below...
The next day I took a boat to Kratie to meet Corina and go see the dolphins again, although this time there were many more. I tried to video them as they don't surface long enough for a photo but my video camera is a bit banjaxed. It's full of dust from my trip to Attapeu. It's currently in the Canon service centre being fixed up.
Cambodians are obsessed with learning English, every street in a small town has at least one English school. We met a teacher in Kratie who persuaded us to spend an hour teaching at his school, although I think he wanted to spent time staring at Corina. He was not alone. Corina is very pale and very blonde and spent a lot of her time in Cambodia being touched and having people play with her hair. I found it amusing, the novelty soon wore off for her! Cambodians are obsessed with skin colour. They want to be as white as possible. They use bleaching products and they hide in the shadows or when they can't they cover up with hats and scarves or towels. A pickup truck full of Cambodians looks like a truck full of laundry wearing sunglasses. So someone who is very white by our standards is a big deal for them.
Anyway, I spent a fairly unpleasant hour teaching English after the dolphin watching. My teacher was a bit of a pain in the arse and I'm fairly sure he wasn't too happy to have me there. The whole thing was a bit of a waste of time.
I also managed to leave my dopey tourist hat in Kratie, very annoying since I had gone to much trouble to buy the exact same one after losing it in Laos. So now I'm wearing a technicolour monstrosity of a hat that I bought on the trek in Chiang Mai. I didn't wear it before because I was afraid to. Now I'm used to it but locals keep commenting on it and I'm getting lots of funny looks from tourists in Bangkok and a friend today told me it's fascinating walking behind me a seeing the Thai men crack up laughing when I've gone past. Hmmm....
After Kratie it was the slow boat to Kompong Thom where I saw and heard the horrible spectacle of a boat load of pigs being unloaded. A boat load of pigs in Ireland would be a boat with a pig pen or some cages or something vaguely reasonable. A boat load of pigs in Cambodia involves getting each pig, tying it's hooves together so it can't move then piling the pigs about 3 layers deep. To unload, simply lift the pigs out one by one, dragging them on their side across the concrete by a rope and then throwing a few buckets of water on them. It was too far away to see properly but the noises were pretty nasty.
The next day we took a comfy minibus on a good road to Kompong Cham where we spent the night in a guest house/knocking shop. Next morning it was another dusty pickup ride to Siem Reap. That was interesting. If I lay in that truck with my feet at one end, I could touch the other end and also the sides, there are no seats and no roof. Somehow we managed to cram 19 adults, 5 children, 2 chickens (one half plucked but still very much alive!), a small bird and everyone's luggage into it. That's not including the 7 passengers inside the cab or the 4 on top of the cab! Not a pleasant 4 hours and at the end of it we were mobbed by motorbike drivers as we were the only foreigners arriving. They are incredibly irritating and this is where this country started to get really annoying. These guys start fighting over your bags and dragging them off despite the fact that you've just told them their price is too high. In the end we told them all to fuck off. We went and had a coke and read our guide books and told them that anyone who tried to speak to us while we were in the cafe was automatically out of the running, this seemed to work, for a while anyway but they were all standing right outside, staring at us and waving!
Siem Reap is the home of Angkor Wat a massive ancient temple complex built between the 8th and 11th centuries. Much of it is in ruins but some of it is still looking pretty impressive. It's hard to describe it but some of the places there are incredibly peaceful and relaxing and you feel you could just sit there for hours... until a bus full of Japanese tourists arrives.
I am definitely going to come back here some day. It's just a pity that it's located in the septic arse of a country that is Cambodia! Siem Reap is where I really started to dislike this place. The guys who drove us round the ruins wanted extra money for doing exactly what we'd agreed the night before, the guest house manager did some creative accounting on both our bills and then rounded the totals UP. Needless to say they were all told to go and shite! Restaurants in the centre of Cambodia's premier tourist attraction and also in the nearby town of Siem Reap smell of shit and rotting food, mainly because they don't make much of a distinction between toilet, kitchen and bin. The drivers on the street are looking for ridiculous amounts of money to take you down the road and refuse to bargain, they would rather not make any money than let a foreigner pay a fair price. The people also like to try and rip you off in sly ways. I got about 100 bites from something in my bed and no it wasn't a woman. All in all things were going down hill.
After Siem Reap it was another long drive in the back of a pickup to Phnom Penh, the capital city. This was not so uncomfortable but one little kiddie decided my feet would be a good place to barf! Not a good start to an 8 hour trip. We stayed in the Sunday guest house, which I would recommend to anyone. It's clean and run by a friendly family. They even gave me some free food one day, just a pity it was vegetables!
That night, we decided to try out a Phnom Penh institution - Happy Herb's Bistro. If you ask them to make your pizza "happy", they add grass to the tomato sauce. Apparently marajuana is a traditional ingredient in Khmer cooking. You can ask for "extra happy" but you better not have much planned for the next few days. Nothing much happened for quite a while, then I got uncontrollable giggles while trying to figure out the bill and that was it really, except for feeling totally wiped out and dizzy until about noon the next day. Maybe we were just too tired to appreciate it, also we both went to bed really early, so I think most of it kicked in while I was asleep, I certainly had some weirdness through the night.
Phnom Penh is a horrible hole of a place. It's full of total gits driving motos, in certain places you have to fight your way past them, they hang onto you insisting that you really do want to go to a firing range despite what you might think yourself. When you walk past them and go into a net cafe, they tell you they'll wait outside, you say no thank you and when you come out 2 hours later, there they are, they waited for you and they get pissed off when you tell them that you still don't want to go to the firing range.
I did the touristy things that one can do in PP. There's the rather dull national museum and the even duller royal palace, both of which are way overpriced and you have to pay extra to take pictures. There's also the two genocide museums - Tuol Sleng where Pol Pot imprisoned and tortured people for all sort of bizarre reasons and Choeng Ek also known as The Killing Fields where Pol Pot had people killed for all sorts of bizarre reasons, eg. you have glasses, you must be intelligent therefore we're going to torture you for a bit and then kill you. Bizarrely, the killing fields is a very tranquil relaxing place, there was a nice cool breeze, the birds were singing and there was music coming from a nearby school. I was sitting in the shade just chilling out when 2 New Zealand girls borrowed my guide book. They were quite good looking and I wanted to talk to them but I didn't think a mass grave was a suitable spot to start chatting people up!
All in all PP is to be avoided if possible, there's not much to do, the place stinks, the people are horrible, the food is relatively expensive, the side wall of one of the biggest markets seems to be a public urinal and absolutely stinks of piss, not what you want right bessde the food stalls and there are a whole load of other reasons to avoid it. After 2 days in PP, I was thinking the unthinkable. I actually couldn't wait to go back to Bangkok. I thought I would never look forward to this place but if I could have I would telported out myself to it. Unfortunately Corina had nipped off to Sihanoukville, a nearby coastal resort, for a couple of days relaxation and I said I'd wait for her. She was flying back to Germany and I wanted to say goodbye. So I hung around for an extra day and wrote a poem about how much I hated Cambodia!
YOU PUT THE C*NT INTO COUNTRY
Cambodia I hate you,
You really are the pits,
Your people send
Me round the bend,
Your food gives me the shits.
Your drivers give me hassle,
They're money grabbing swines,
I hope their trucks'll
Break an axle,
Or drive into some mines.
Your restaurants are stinking,
They make me want to spew,
It's no wonder I've the scutters,
When the kitchen is the loo.
Your capital's a cess pit,
Your border guards are thieves
The Wat at Angkor's
Full of wangkors,
I couldn't wait to leave.
I'm so glad to be departing,
I'm never coming back,
I'd rather marry,
Or iron flat my sack.
So, the next night, I said goodbye to Corina and got up before 5am to get a pickup to the Thai border. It was an 11 hour trip, the longest yet but not too packed. I thought it was going to be fairly uneventful, until we ran over a snake! We didn't kill it but it wasn't exactly healthy either. We went back to pick it up. I think the driver sold it to someone in the end. I also got to hold someone's sprog for a few minutes. I was fairly sure it was going to pee all over me but amazingly enough it didn't. Off the hook, or so I thought. At the end, when the truck emptied out, the driver asked would I like to sit inside. I eventually said yes. There was a woman and her 3 year old daughter in there. The kid was a bit hyper but after a while she fell asleep. After a while her foot bumped off me and it seemed really hot. A few minutes later I realised the heat was not from her foot. She'd just pissed herself and I was now soaked Cambodian kiddie piss! Add to this the bizarre conversation with the driver about why Europeans are obsessed with oral sex and his 14 year old girlfriend and this was turning into one of the less pleasurable pickup journeys! It finally ended in Poipet, the border town with Thailand, where he attempted to overcharge me.
I was so looking forward to leaving this manky oozing inefected wound of a country but I was too late to cross the border that day and so I had to stay in possibly the scummiest guest house so far, in the most detestable town ever. The only upside was the Capitol Restaurant. Some people might describe the atmosphere of this restaurant as sterile, but after 10 days of eating in toilets, sterile was exactly what I wanted. The people here were friendly, the food was delicious and in big portions and the place was spotless. I'm pretty sure the whole thing was actually run by Thais not Cambodians. According to my guidebook, it is considered rude to pick your teeth with a toothpick without covering your mouth with your other hand. Fair enough, but in one restaurant I was in, the owner thought it was fine to open your mouth wide and sneeze (twice) as hard as you can, spraying snots all over the place. He paused to admire his handiwork and then continued eating. This was definitely not a Cambodian restaurant.
The next morning I got up bright and early so I could leave as soon as possible. I had breakfast in the Capitol again and then walked to the border. I thought I was home clear but these bastards were going to have one last laugh. While I was getting out my passport, the border guard swiped my sunglasses!!!! There's not a whole lot you can do in that situation. You ask where are your glasses and he shrugs, "what glasses?" Who can you complain to? Who ya gonna call? Ghostbusters? You may as well! Bastards, bastards, bastards.
So that was me out of Cambodia and on the bus to Bangkok, minus my new shades. I think I also managed to catch some sort of disease in Cambodia. I spent the next two days in BK with a manky pounding headache that didn't go away the next morning like headaches are supposed to. I got a bit worried and started looking up the symptoms of various nasty diseases in my guide book but none matched. The headache was finally cured when I bumped in Dave Scott, an old college friend from Ireland and the two of us proceeded to get hammered at 3 in the afternoon. Dave's been living here for a month and I just bumped into him while wandering around a totally unfamiliar part of town, one of those "small world" moments.
We ended up going out with his mate Cormac to Nana plaza, the home of various gogo bars and strip joints. It's something that everyone has to do at least once in their trip to BK and I hadn't really had anyone to do it with before, so I was quite happy. It turns out they've just banned nudity so there's no stripping in the strip joints anymore, they're all just wear bikinis. The whole thing was really strange, totally unexciting and in one of the places they also had wrestling showing on a big screen. Not the WWF type wrestling, it was the olympic type which I've always thought was particularly homosexual. It usually seems to be one very sweaty man, who has managed to force the other very sweaty man into one of the positions from the Kama Sutra. They then spend 5 or 10 minutes in that position grunting and shoving until somehow one of them is declared the winner. It's certainly not what you want to be looking at in a gogo bar. The other funny thing was the girls. In one bar we were sitting right beside the stage. The dancing girls were chatting and giggling away like schoolgirls on the bus home rather than professiojal strippers simulating unnatural acts with a beer bottle! All I could do was laugh along.
After that it was time to play possibly the drunkest games of pool I've ever played. We finished the night, sitting on the top of Dave's apartment block in the centre of BK with a guitar, admiring the sky line and trying to put my Cambodia poem to music. Needless to say we didn't succeed and I fell off my bench. Didn't break anyhting, in fact it occurred to me that I have yet to report to any medical facilities on this trip, pretty good for me! And the whole sordid affair cured my headache!
So, those of you who've actually struggled to the end of this are up to date on my travels. Those who didn't are forgiven, it was pretty tough going. I'll try not to leave it so long next time and maybe I'll have something mad and amusing to report but don't let my infrequency of mailing stop you mailing me, you lazy antisocial gits! (Well some of you anyway)
Anyway, until next time, have fun,