Day 91 – Wednesday, July 24th 2013
At last, opening out in front of us was our first real taste of South East Asia. As soon as we had crossed the border the transformation had been instant. The roadside homes were now bamboo huts with roofs made from woven leaves, the villages had shrunk to a collection of dwellings, and the drive of modern industry that we had grown accustomed to in China evaporated along with the infrastructure that had supported it. Roads were tiny, winding, and the pace of life slower – this was more like it.
We pulled in at a tiny town (but still one of the larger black dots on the Chinese produced Laos tourist map that we had purchased that morning), and were surprised to find that the cuisine was still very similar to that of the Yunnan province. After a short time, the red lanterns outside and the familiar symbols adorning the walls gave us the reason – our first steps, independent from our guide, had been directly into a Chinese restaurant. Smart cookies, we are.
We left the town, pulling away gingerly to avoid any more concrete cover panels from dropping into the drainage ditch, as they had done when we had come to a stop.
Our next plan, in the slightly large scheme of things, was to head to the capital city Vientiane, and apply for some Visas at their collection of embassies and consulates that reside there. En route there were the towns of Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng, which our Lonely Planet guide book assured us would be well worth stopping in at.
The first stage to Luang Prabang (the old capital city), was a measly 300km. The scenery was dramatic, and the roads terrible, so our pace dropped and we decided to camp up about half way there, once we had gained a little altitude and the temperature had, in turn, dropped to a more comfortable level.
Day 92 – Thursday, July 25th 2013
The morning light revealed that the secluded lay-by that we had pulled into for the night actually had a small path descending the hill from one corner of it. Along this tiny scramble of a route came many a villager on their way to a day of work on the hills, along with a fair variety of livestock. It meant an early start to the day, and everyone seemed to be curious as to what we were doing there.
We started the morning with a good deed, helping out a local whose chain kept jumping off his motorcycle – the truck load of tools that we had at our disposal certainly did a better job of it than the two rocks he had previously been trying to employ.
Arriving in town just past midday we strolled into a coffee shop and suffered our first ever case of reverse culture shock! The cafe was clearly in place to satisfy the demands of tourists, and due to its place in the Lonely Planet, was packed full of western folk. Just like us. The menu was in English, and inscribed in brightly coloured chalk on a black board, the glass serving counter covered any number of pristine cakes and delicacies. It sounds simple enough, a little home-from-home set up for the tourists that come to visit – of course, but we were left gobsmacked – unable to take it in. It sounds ridiculous to even recount the tale, but we just sat in near-silence as the peculiar feeling washed over us. After months of placing orders using a combination of mime and a ‘Point It’ book, it was a shock to be dropped straight back into a crowd that we blended in with, and to be face-to-face with such familiarity. We just weren’t prepared for it.
Anyhow, with that little surprise behind us, we set about exploring the town happily getting absorbed back into the falang (foreigner) crowd once more. We visited the museum situated in the old royal palace (sorry, no photos were allowed from the inside), and climbed the 300 steps to a pagoda overlooking the town. We tracked down some local food and decided to leave Ivor in town so that we could relax with a Beerlao afterwards.
Day 93 – Friday, July 26th 2013
Just outside town is a small national park – in this area there is a cascade of waterfalls, where we had heard that it is possible to swim in some of the pools. We got up bright and early and went to check the place out. Something that is hardly mentioned in the descriptions that we had seen of the venue is that it incorporates a bear sanctuary for Asiatic Black Bears, and Malaysian Sun Bears. We got to see both clambering around their enclosures.
We had the place almost to ourselves when we followed some ‘Jungle Trek’ signs into the scrub for a short walk. By the time we came back there was just one other couple at one of the natural pools, and they were on their way off – so we managed to keep the idyllic setting to ourselves while we took a dip.
We walked upstream, passing ever larger sets of falls, until a thundering further up told us that the best was yet to come. Dropping a few hundred meters in total the falls are very impressive, and the rainy season was showing them off to their full potential. Another bit of hiking up the edge of the big falls, and by the time we had returned the heat of the day was really kicking in. With sweat beading off of our reddened faces, it was clear that we should take another dip. We chose a larger pool for our next swim, but cut it short when the fish started taking a nibble – like the trendy Japanese foot spas that are showing up in western cities, except you immerse your whole body, the fish are bigger, and they hurt you.
Rolling away from the park just as it was starting to get a little busier we went back to town to meet Clive, one of the China Bikers (a nice one), who was staying in a rather swanky joint just on the edge of Luang Prabang. Keen readers may recall that Clive was the first of the China party that we met back in Azerbaijan while we waited for the (worst) ferry (in the world).
We stopped in at his hotel for a fine poolside lunch, and although we had planned to move on towards Vang Vieng that afternoon. Clive, in one movement, adjusted our plans by raising his hand to request a second bottle of rosé. With just the slightest hint of persuasion, we succumbed and – at his insistence, spent the rest of the afternoon chill-axing in the hotel pool watching the thunderstorms roll in from the surrounding hills (thank you Clive). That evening we dined at another great restaurant in town, and finished the night with a ride back to the Hotel in a tuk-tuk, where we sneaked back into Ivor feeling cheeky since we’d not asked the hotel staff first.
Day 94 – Saturday, July 27th 2013
We stopped en route to Vang Vieng to pick up a pineapple from a roadside seller for breakfast, the trader this time was a young girl of nine or ten who wielded her machete expertly to skin and dice the fruit – while her assistant, who was barely a toddler fetched a bag for us to carry it off in. It probably goes without saying, but the fruit that we have bought in this way has always been of a standard that the grocers from our home countries could only dream of – be they lychees, pineapple, mangos, or dragon fruit, the freshness made them so very much richer.
Pausing in Vang Vieng for lunch was long enough for us to decide that we would not be there very long – set up pretty much exclusively to serve the falang’s every whim, it was crowded with average restaurants specialising in below average western food – and almost every last one of them was playing episodes of the TV show ‘Friends’ on infinite repeat. We were supposed to be on an adventure dammit! This kind of civilisation just would not do!
We spent the afternoon tracking down another, equally impressive, set of falls, and sloped back to Vang Vieng for some dinner (with Friends), and slept in a corner of a derelict airfield right next to town.
Day 95 – Sunday, July 28th 2013
No surprise awakening from aircraft starter motors, you’ll be pleased to hear (it was thoroughly dilapidated, as airfields go). Today we would head to the new capital, Vientiane, so that we would be ready for the Embassies opening the next day where we could submit our papers for the Visas we needed – namely India, Myanmar, and Thailand.
We had no idea what to expect from this city, but we were pleased to find it tiny, easy to navigate, and largely welcoming. We spent the day getting ourselves in order for the Visa applications, and putting the finishing touches to the Myanmar arrangements.
That night we parked Ivor in a back street and slept in the back.
Day 96 – Monday, July 29th 2013
Up nice and early to submit our papers to the Indian Embassy. Of course, our case would be a special one, and they would have to call back to say if they would be able to accept our application. They are not used to people wanting to cross the land borders.
We had no Laotian phone number, so checked into a hotel so they could get in touch. We were somewhat relieved to have the excuse to check in somewhere, since the previous night in town had been pretty toasty inside the truck, and we were happy to get a little more airflow – or even the luxury of AC.
According to the Embassy we would need to submit a planned itinerary with our application, and all should be okay. Super.
Day 97 – Tuesday, July 30th 2013
The joy of paperwork – we were up early again to submit the additional itinerary, we would be accepted, and we were told just before we had to pay the fee. For a Canadian the charge is 58 USD, for a UK resident it is an incredible 147! Geez, it’s almost as if they are holding a grudge over something!
While at the embassy an Aussie guy put his head round the door and introduced himself – he’d seen Ivor outside with UK plates and come to say hi. With his girlfriend, he too was overlanding – but they were travelling from Australia back to the UK – and their weapon of choice was an Australian Ford taxi. Facebook-savvy readers can check out their progress at OZUKTaxi.
Today was also a day of celebration for us – our 2 year wedding anniversary! And to commemorate this special occasion, we had kept the very last bottle of champagne from the big day, carried it all across Central Asia and through China to now be able to drink it with our dinner. Since Laos was formerly a French protectorate, we were even able to dine at a local French restaurant – perfect!
We enjoyed a few cocktails during the happy hour before dinner, then feasted on magret de canard which was cooked to perfection – though our French readers probably will not believe this to be possible outside of the ‘31’ postcode in the south west ;o) This was followed up with a monstrous chocolate soufflé for dessert which completely defeated us.
Day 98 – Wednesday, July 31st 2013
It had been a little while, but it was once again Ivor’s time to roll back into the limelight. He timed attention seeking to perfection once more; we were due to head out of town to explore the local area a little while we waited for the Indian Visas to come through, and he was having none of it!
It was another puddle of oil showing up on the tarmac – a rear hub seal had collapsed, and since we had parked on the camber of the road, the differential fluid had flowed, via the left hand brake, onto the road. Not the right place for it.
We had a spare oil seal with us, thankfully, so could change that easy peasy. We dismantled the hub without a problem (we’d had practice of this back in France), and found that the old one must have been mashed by the oaf that worked on our truck back in Chengdu. The timing of this was not great, since between the #@#$%# ’s mistake and now, you may recall that the truck had been through a good few feet of flood water – and when oil can get out, water can most certainly get in. The water had indeed taken this opportunity, to great effect. The slurry that was drained from the axle was in a sorry state, but fortunately did not seem to contain anything metallic.
While we had first been stripping down the hub, an American guy came over to say hi. He’d been living in Laos for a long time, and had a Canadian friend who ran a local mechanic shop. We went over to see Mike, the Newfoundlander, and got them to press in the new seal under the illusion that they would use a proper press and do a better job than Vaughan’s hammer would have done. They whipped out a hammer and had the new part beaten into place in no time, while we tried not to look. Mike said he could sort our brakes out the next day too, so we returned to Ivor to make him as road worthy as possible to bring him to the shop in the morning.
While we were working away a local came over to help, as is the way of the Laotians. He was a mute, and clearly not living too comfortable a life himself – but as we had often found from the locals here – he was ready to lend a hand – fetching bags to keep the parts clean, handing tools over, and helping to lug the brake drum and wheel around.
Day 99 – Thursday, August 1st 2013
Off back to the workshop (disappointingly not named ‘Mike and the Mechanics’, he missed something there), now onto the next little issue:
Brakes shoes, to the best of our knowledge, work better when not saturated with oil. And since Iveco dealers are a little thin on the ground in Laos, we would have to get the shoes relined rather than replacing the whole component. We were fortunate, in a way, that this happened in a developing country, where this kind of repair is commonplace. Mike had also been in the business a long time so knew somewhere that could help us.
The kindly owner dropped us off on his way back to town at a restaurant that he liked where we could pick up the typical Laos breakfast of duck noodle soup, with a good dose of herb, spices, and sauces that you stir in to flavour as you see fit.
Spending the day in town, we called later, but the truck would take a little more time to get finished – so we would go back tomorrow to collect him.
We took a stroll along the banks of the Mekong to find some keep fit classes in full swing, exhausted by the sight of it we retired to a nearby bar, where we could gaze out towards the Thai side of the river