Laos: Caving Delights, Water Fights, and Ivor’s Plight

Day 340 – Sunday, March 30th 2014

Our first mistake, and perhaps our most significant, came within minutes of entering the country. Having refused to pay petty bribes to the Cambodian border officials just moments early we were brimming with confidence in the ‘cross your arms and refuse to pay’ technique. Our error was to overlook the professional nature of the bribe request: they had bothered to print out their demands for money on a computer and tape it to the window – the best the Cambodians could muster was a hand written sign.

When the officials refused to give us a receipt for their spurious out-of-hours payment for weekend working, we refused to pay. This whole thing somewhat backfired when they in turn refused to give us visas and, while pointing south said “Back to Cambodia”, ushering us out of the office, and closing the door.

Hmm, that hadn’t quite worked out as we’d planned.

We returned to the office window, with tails between legs we suckered up the puny bribe (a few US dollars at most) and they agreed to reconsider letting us into the country.

Vaughan, happy to have been let into Laos

Vaughan, happy to have been let into Laos

With the border nonsense safely behind us, we moved north towards the town of Pakse, stopping there for lunch at an Indian Restaurant.

Military presence isn't strong in Laos, and even when it can be seen is haphazard at best

Military presence isn’t strong in Laos, and even when it can be seen is haphazard at best

A large bolt that our tyre had picked up just north of Phnom Pehn was still wedged firmly into our spare, so V set about changing it. By the time it was done our enthusiasm for moving on had dwindled so we checked into a hotel – it was still way too toasty to be sleeping in Ivor’s oven / cabin.

Day 341 – Monday, March 31st 2014

Some bits of shopping filled our morning – getting a local SIM card, laminating some posters from Nepal and NE India that were still not adorning Ivor’s white walls, and just some general supplies.

Around midday we were packing up to set off when the heart sinking panic set in, realising that we had no idea where Vaughan’s camera was. The answer to that most infuriating of question (when you’re the ‘loser’ in this situation) “where did you last have it?”, was ‘at the Indian Restaurant for yesterdays lunch’. We went to ask the staff at the restaurant to see if they’d seen it, and then those at the convenience store that we’d been to afterwards, and the results were all negative.

During the tortured moments that followed we paced around the high street trying to think where it could possibly be. A girl from the convenience store ran out to find us – she’d been looking through the CCTV footage and had seen that we didn’t even have it with us when we’d gone to the store…

Knowing that, we gave the restaurant one more try – this time speaking to the manager. The worker we spoke to before had seemed shifty when we’d asked him about it, but the manager seemed so earnest that we had no option but to believe him that none of them had seen it.

The feeling of embarrassment was definitely overshadowed with joy when, on climbing into Ivor to start the drive north, we spotted the camera tucked down next to the driver’s seat. So it was our failing minds all along – the camera had not even left the truck the whole time – even CCTV had confirmed it!

After making a few laps of the town centre – due to unannounced road closures, GPS-isms, and even a missing bridge, we finally headed north early in the afternoon.

We drove until it was almost dark, and stopped in at a mosquito breeding centre / hotel in the town of Savannakhet. On returning from a good meal in a Japanese restaurant, we went on an insect killing spree, and settled down for the night.

Day 342 – Tuesday, April 1st 2014

Another slow start due to incompetence – not from misplacing a camera this time, but from slightly overfilling Ivor’s engine with oil. Having misread the dipstick, and / or not allowed enough time for the oil to settle in the big guy’s belly, we sploshed too much in, and were forced to go through the messy procedure of draining excess out by removing the filter.

On the way Ivor let his displeasure at our amateur mechanic skill be known to us by spitting the dummy in an entirely new way – the bushings that allow the torsion springs on the front suspension to rotate were in the process of collapsing – and the creaking noise at every bump made it clear that something was amiss. The combo of 20 year old rubber, and 40000 kilometers of terrible roads meant that something was bound to give – and although perfectly safe, we would need to deal with this before the off-road challenge of Mongolia to make sure nothing else could get damaged – we had some spares, so shouldn’t be a problem to fix – just another thing added to the list to be sorted in Vientiane.

Loas impressive limestone interior

Loas impressive limestone interior

The View slightly jaded by the smog of 'burning season'.

The View slightly jaded by the smog of ‘burning season’.

Our target for the day was Kong Lor cave, so that we could camp up for the night there, and visit it first thing in the morning. We were served two gigantic Laos dishes in a restaurant right next to the national park entrance, so not only did we get free parking in a prime location, but we also took away a couple of tupperwares full of left overs.

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Day 343 – Wednesday, April 2nd 2014

After proceeding into the national park on foot, you are assigned two people to help navigate you through the caves – one to drive the boat, and the other to sit at the front, who holds a flash light and yells directions back to the driver.

We were the first ones in and, although it is a river that flows through the caves, the waters were for the most part totally still on the surface until disturbed by our tiny boat. There is something magical about coasting along through the eerie silence as the ripples are caught in the beams of our flashlights, getting reflected all around the cave.

The route that is navigable by boat is about 10km from one side of the hills to the other, and it takes an hour and a half to make it through to the other side and then back again. It takes a little longer should you wish to stop for a swim in clear open waters on your return – and it’s already so hot, that it really is the only smart thing to do.

Tourist fun now out of the way, we drove on to Vientiane. Having spent a while there on the outbound journey, we found a cheap guesthouse (with the all important parking spaces) and some good food for dinner with ease.

Day 344 – Thursday, April 3rd 2014

We had quite a few jobs to do in town to get paperwork and the vehicle up to scratch before the return to Europe got underway in earnest. One thing was a new set of boots for Ivor – and there was a Michelin shop just down the road from our guesthouse, we came soooo close to getting what we wanted (and even in stock, but alas only road tread patterns were available in Laos, for anything more aggressive we would have to order some from Thailand.

Our trip to the Mongolian embassy would yield better news though – the rules had recently changes, and Kim would no longer need a visa to enter the country – hurrah!

So next on the list was to get to Mike, our friendly Canadian mechanic, so that we could get Ivor tarted up good and proper.

So, to save some kind of tedious blow-by-blow account of our mechanical sufferings for the next week or so, how about we just give you a list of some of the most important / time consuming ones, and then update you with any exciting* news as time goes by?

  • 4 x new tyres, with tread on, that can support Ivor’s porky body, that match our two spares in outer diameter
  • Remove mud from fuel tanks, find out how it got there, stop it from happening again
  • Change front suspension bushings
  • Add snorkel, ready for the Mongolian wet season and their bridgeless roads ( / tracks)
  • Make the brakes:
  1. Work
  2. Refrain from leaking
  3. Quiet

* Unlikey given the subject, but bear in mind that it’s a matter of perspective, and just because something is very important for us, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be interesting to you. Sorry about that.

That night we feasted on Pizza at another resto in town, and were joined at our table by a French girl who’d moved out here working for a NGO. She was really friendly, had seen the country from a very interesting perspective, and took our minds away from the subject of our troublesome Ivor.

The internet in our new, slightly better located guesthouse, shared some bad news with us – Firstly that our request to extend our sabbatical leave a smidge had been rejected, and secondly that V’s Russian visa application in the UK had been rejected. The first was understandable, since 15 months is the legal max in France, and is considered a flippin’ liberty in all other parts of the world – so extending beyond that is just plain cheeky. The second, well, we had the wrong passport number on the letter of invitation – so we could see that one from their side too – it was just a nuisance, since re-applying for a letter would take time.

Day 345 – Friday, April 4th 2014

We went to the workshop fairly early, resulting the following exciting* news of the day:

  • The suspension bushings we’d been carrying around were of the wrong diameter, slightly. We’d had to order some more to be delivered to China, and bodge a short term fix for the one which was most collapsed
  • Where the pipe that takes fuel from one of the tanks was cracked – that is how the mud got in – and to think we’d been blaming it all of the bad Indian fuel. Shame on us.
  • Kim found a tyre supplier in Thailand that could ship them as far as the Thai border town of Nong Khai
  • V spent a fair amount of the day playing with the workshop dog, a kind of stretched out mongrel – known as ‘Blacky’ to most of the staff, or ‘Lowrider’ to Mike.

That night we moved guesthouses again – this time back to one that we’d stayed in on our last visit to the country, it was a slightly better deal since it came with a free breakfast.

Day 346 – Saturday, April 5th 2014

We were at the garage by 8am despite the daily, and somewhat infuriating, haggling process to get tuk-tuk drivers to agree to a price that was anywhere near reasonable. Work got underway slowly, but although nothing got finished today, we were starting to figure out a way forward for most of it.

V and one of the mechanics trying to dismantle the front suspension

V and one of the mechanics trying to dismantle the front suspension

Work stops short on a Saturday in Laos, and we were not in the mood to carry on working away by ourselves so went back into town and got on with some internetting and blogging.

As we set out for a stroll we spotted a familiar looking Royal Enfield, and sure enough, close by we spied the shaggy barnet of Ben, one of our fellow Burma travellers. We stopped by for a beer, and as sometimes happens one turned into two, which in turn resulted in us going out to a bar, then a night club with some of the other travellers from Ben’s hostel, even though he stayed in.

The club was fun, and almost all full of locals – nice to see how people party without catering for the tourists all the time. It was a long walk back after the festivities, so we stopped in at a late night noodle joint, and backed up by a little liquid courage, we tried the Asian speciality of chicken feet. Unsurprisingly, we were left with a mouth full of bones, and very little else (no, not ‘plates of meat’, as the cockney’s would put it) – they were definitely not appetising enough to explain their popularity. In all of South East Asia you would be hard pushed to find a convenience store without at least one shelf of these beauties.

More merriment ensued back at the guesthouse afterwards, and the sun was up by the time we made it to bed.

Day 347 – Sunday, April 6th 2014

Although we would love to blame the bad feeling in our bellies on the peculiar late night snack, we have a sneaking suspicion that there may be another cause, one that come delivered in a Beer Laos bottle. Whatever the reason, this day was not a productive one. The most significant achievement was a pizza for dinner with Ben, and then watching a movie on our laptop.

Day 348 – Monday, April 7th 2014

Straight back to Mike’s garage this morning, with the following to report:

  • Tuk-tuks in Vientiane are both expensive and annoying, we would be cycling from now on
  • A bodge for the broken suspension bushing could be turned from an off cut of steel that Mike had spare
  • We cut down our water tank brackets so that the leaf springs would no longer smack them on the biggest of bumps
  • V changed the brake master cylinder, and one of the rear slaves – we just needed to get the rest of Ivor back together so we could bleed the damn thing

Mike had recommended a burger / bbq joint in town, so we set out to investigate – and were not disappointed.

Day 349 – Tuesday, April 8th 2014

Oh, yippee, another workshop day.

IMG_3729

  • We needed more brake fluid, it seems everyone in Laos uses the wrong type for modern cars (DOT3 instead of DOT4). We managed to find some at a BMW dealership, but they refused to sell it to us since we didn’t have a BMW. Only because the store manager had trained in the UK, and was sympathetic to our cause did V persuade him to sell us some. With purchase in hand, V then marched out off the sales floor, smack bang into an exceptionally clear glass door. Smooth.
  • We replaced the air in our brakes with the aforementioned brake fluid
  • With a new bushing available we got most of the front suspension back together

The Buddhist new year was fast approaching – after Friday, nothing would be getting done either in Thailand (for our tyre delivery), or here in Laos. We had better get our skates on.

Kim wasn’t feeling the going out vibe, so V went to hang out with the guys from Ben’s guesthouse. One thing led to another (meaning beer led to a nightclub) and he finally made it ‘back to the shack’ way past his bedtime.

Day 350 – Wednesday, April 9th 2014

Kim made it to the workshop at a respectable hour, whereas the troublesome tyke V would arrive a little later.  Here’s the car stuff (bullet points seem to be working out well for this since it removes the need for structural niceties that would be required should we try and phrase it all correctly, sorry about that, but we’re nearly finished now):

  • Mike and the gang were obviously excited about the snorkel project, and were busy working away on it
  • Our re-lined brake shoes didn’t match the arc of the drums very well, so Mike’s guys set to them with files, and did a surprisingly good job of it

Day 351 – Thursday, April 10th 2014

If only things went our way we could be out of that damn workshop today! An early start resulted in:

  • Assembled and adjusted front suspension
  • Brakes that did all that they should (and nothing more, none of that leaking business)
  • A fine looking snorkel assembled from household pipework
  • Tyres waiting for us just over the border in Thailand
Check out that lovely snorkel

Check out that lovely snorkel

We drove back to town, and it felt good to have Ivor back with us again – so much so that we were barely annoyed at all when the traffic police tried to get some money out of us. We laughed it off and they gave in, realising that we’d done nothing wrong and our documents were in order.

Day 352 – Friday, April 11th 2014

A day trip to Thailand, how exciting! If only it wasn’t just to pick up tyres, get them fitted, and then get some supplies from Tescos. Oh well, that’s how it panned out.

The border crossing out went smoothly enough, despite an attempt from the Thai immigration officer trying to wrangle more money for one reason or another (you really do have to watch these fools). Standing defiantly, we eventually got our passports back and were free to hit the road into Thailand.

With only one U turn, and a few directions from locals we found the courier company, and took delivery of our large package. Also without too much bother we found the Tyre company suggested by Mike, and they agreed to fit them for us.

IMAG0245

Just a typical holiday snap from our trip to thailand

The return to Laos was not so simple. There was much waving of forms, searching for stamp wielding officials down corridors, and finally we got fiddled out of some money at one of the counters. We’d done pretty well at avoiding it so far, but eventually you end up with a situation where an official has something you need in their hands, and is asking for money for you to have it back – and it’s not worth the risk of calling over their superiors in case you have to pay them off as well. It was small change really, but the principle is still worth fighting for up to a point. The trick is knowing when to give up, pay the money, and slope away muttering about it quietly between you.

We’d planned to be further north into Laos this evening, but time had gotten away from us, and the lure of good French food was too great to ignore. As we drove into town celebrations for the new year were already getting underway – with sound systems appearing at the road-side, and water fights starting with hosepipes all over the city.

We ate well that night, and shared a few beers with a pair of expats who were on visa runs / travels – an English girl who’d been living in Vietnam, and a Canadian guy who been residing in Thailand.

Day 353 – Saturday, April 12th 2014

At last leaving the capital, we made it as far north as Vang Vieng before pulling up to the Hotel that our Burma buddy Ben was staying in. We got there in the early afternoon, and got our party hats on – it was Vaughan’s birthday, and we had celebrating to do.

But not before a quick nap.

We’d taken a room with air conditioning as part of V’s birthday treats, and the busy few days before had taken their toll. A fresh room with a comfortable bed was all the excuse we needed to delay the party a little. It was only because Ben came knocking on the door at 3pm that we got up when we did.

Tubing was on the agenda, and we had only just enough time to go and collect our old truck inner tubes, jump in a tuk-tuk, and be transported upstream to the release point. The point of Tubing, as far as we can make out, is to bounce your way down the river, and refresh yourself at each of the impromptu bars that line the banks. Apparently it is quite the thing to do round here, and lot of people were well into the spirit of it by the time we arrived. Just don’t mention that it’s your birthday, otherwise you’ll be subjected to no end of horrendous free shots.

This sort of silliness cannot go on entirely without consequence, and as such, the casualty for the evening was to be Kim’s camera – lost into the river. Ironic really, since it was a waterproof one, and is probably still in perfect working order.

Day 354 – Sunday, April 13th 2014

Despite the revelry of the previous evening, we’d all ended up back at the hotel surprisingly early, and all felt pretty good this morning. We quaffed a monstrous breakfast at a Belgian restaurant, just to quell any hangover that might attempt show itself.

Happy Birthday Boy - was sobbing minutes later having to return the puppy to it's owners

Happy Birthday Boy – was sobbing moments later having to return the puppy to it’s owners

We’d coerced Ben into joining us for a few days as we moved further north to the town of Luang Prabang. Having been told many times that the old capital really was THE place to spend new year, even by the border guards on the way into the country (the nice, non bribe-requesting ones), it would have been foolish to turn down the opportunity, particularly when we realised it was on our route to China and the timings worked out.

On the way out of town, we went for one last attempt to track down the missing camera, and though the bars we’d been to had not seen any sign of it, we did come across some more of the Burma travellers. Tom, Betina, and their son Elias had been camping out down that way. It allowed us to complete our ‘set of travellers’ photos from the Burmese trip too, since the young family were the only ones missing. It’s fortunate that this blog runs so late, since we managed to slip it into the right group of pics well before they were published.

Probably the greatest of Vaughan’s birthday treats was that he now had the chance to ride Ben’s motorcycle through the twisting mountain roads that lead the way to Luang Prabang. All he’d have to do was try not to get too severely pelted as he passed through the makeshift road blocks / water fight ambushes that lined the route into town as the New Year celebrations started to take off.

We were surprised yet again on the road when we spotted Dirk and Gabi coming in the opposite direction, yet more travellers from the same group. We exchanged a few words, and they tipped us off about a camping area close to the town centre.

On our arrival in town, surprise was no longer adequate; we were forced to upgrade to astonishment when Vaughan was stopped by two of the French boys that had also been through Burma with us. Now this might sound that everyone had been travelling on together, but quite the opposite, everyone that we had met had parted ways at the Thai border. The only people that we knew of that were still travelling ensemble that we were aware of, we’d missed by a matter of hours back in Vientiane.

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The camping spot tip off turned out to be a bit of a dump, but hey it was close enough to town at least. We got set up and then went off in search of dinner and drinks. On our return, Ben found a local man, who’d already gotten well into the spirit of the New Year’s celebrations had taken occupancy of his tent. It took quite the heaving and rolling of the drunkard before he could be persuaded to move, so deep was his slumber. When he did eventually come to, he was apologetic and the few words of English that he did know confirmed that he would be of no further trouble to us.

Day 355 – Monday, April 14th 2014

Today was the official start of the celebrations – so we armed ourselves with a breakfast at a joint that advertised ‘the best bacon in town’. The Canadian that owned the place, and his buddy that was over working for a few months got chatting to us and we learned a little more about what we could expect from the day.

Basically there would be a near endless stream of pickup trucks loaded with people in the back touring the town, all armed with water pistols. There’d be music blasted out onto the street, and aqua fuelled war would take place between those lining the roads, and those in the vehicles.

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We returned to the truck to stash anything electrical and then went off to join the fun. Anyone that wasn’t a Monk, or carrying an infant was considered fair game for a dosing – even policemen could not escape the soaking. It was all in good spirits, and everyone was getting involved – a full cross section of the population was out to enjoy themselves and make the most of the carnival atmosphere. We took a tour around, 3-up on Ben’s motorcycle, just to make sure we were thoroughly drenched – and those lining the streets duly assisted.

Our Canadian friends sniping on the high street

Our Canadian friends sniping on the high street

The water fights calmed down in the late afternoon, and we stayed out for a bit of bar hopping as our clothes dried out – mixing with Laotians and falang alike. A great day, and something we’ll look back on for long time as something we were lucky to have been involved in.

Day 356 – Tuesday, April 15th 2014

After a brekky in town, we set off from the camping spot, and as we waited for Ben to kick his bike into life it became clear he’d run out of fuel. We gave him a ride to the gas station, and then got on our way.

On the way out we pulled in at the hotel of Stephen and Caroline – who were set to be our new comrades for crossing through China. They’d had a bit of trouble the last couple of days with a prop shaft on their Land Rover (affectionately known as Sterlin), and were no longer sure they would be able to join us, since our entry date was pretty much fixed.

With fingers, toes, and anything else we could find, crossed in hope of a speedy recovery for Sterlin, we made our way further north to the town of Nong Khiaw. On route the water fights and celebrations we still well underway, so you had to be pretty rapid sliding the windows shut to avoid a soaking as we passed through the various villages.

That night we met up with Coen and Marejke, the Dutch couple that would also be joining us for the China trip. V was still feeling a little worse for wear after the fun of the day before, so we apologised to our new amigos since we needed an early night.

Day 357 – Wednesday, April 16th 2014

There was not a great distance between us and the China border as we set off from Nong Khiaw, slightly late, but having taken the time to fill our water tanks. The street leading out of the town was teeming with butterflies, and clouds of the insects parted to let us through.

This photo doesn't really do the butterfly swarm justice, but it's all we have

This photo doesn’t really do the butterfly swarm justice, but it’s all we have

The road was terrible to start with, the kind of pot-holed, dirt riddled affair that India would be proud of. Going was slow, our speedo reading was hovering around the low twenties for most of the day – particularly unimpressive given that it reads in kilometres, and not miles.

Once past the town of Udomxai, the roads had seen a fair bit of Chinese investment, so were nigh on perfect. We covered the remaining distance to the border town with ease, and caught up with Coen and Marejke for some dinner.

We’d received word from the stricken Land Rover team that they had managed to get the car up and running again, so would be coming to join us after all. They arrived sometime after dark, but we had a cold beer or two ready and waiting.

Another chapter of the trip had now closed behind us, no longer would we be swanning around at leisure in South East Asia. Although there was still quite a considerable distance ahead of us, we were now quite definitely entering the return leg of our journey. Every now and then, one of us would take a cursory glance at google maps, or a globe, or would take note of our current time zone, and some facts were no longer ignorable: we were a very long way from home, and had less than 3 months left to get there….

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One thought on “Laos: Caving Delights, Water Fights, and Ivor’s Plight

  1. Hi K and V . Do hope that your travels continue well. Great to hear of your adventures. I am now back in the UK after my 2 years in Thailand. It’s lovely to be in the UK in June as it is lush and beautiful but I miss south East Asia. It is good that you will have a gradual return. Enjoy that last few months of your great journey. Love Rosie

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