Engine broken in the middle of nowhere? No problem: the mechanic comes to the bus. Some branches placed on to the road either side of the broken down bus indicate a breakdown to passing traffic. Note the hoist made from locally found materials and old tyres to support the engine while it is being removed. Once it's fixed the bus will leave behind on the road: the branches, 2 stones behind the rear wheels and a big patch of spilt oil and coolant liquid. The entire hill section was already covered in stones left behind...
1/1/2009 Another year has sneaked past. Or do I have to say 'snuck past'? The sky is crisp and clear, thanks to a blustery and cold wind blowing in from Vietnam again. Is that the NE monsoon? This doesn't feel tropical at all! Next stop is Na Hin on Route 8. I have been here before, too. After checking out all the guest houses we settle into one, then after lunch head off to the boat trip through Kanlor cave. First surprise: the road has been sealed from the first village right to the end. (Except the first 5 km from the main road, the busiest stretch, go figure.) Since I have a waypoint from my first visit I now know where to go in Ban Kanlor. Or so I thought. No boats there. They have moved to the end of the road. There we are asked to pay a parking fee (why do you have to pay everywhere in Laos to park even a bicycle?). However, arrived at the river we are too late to go on a trip, as we would have to return at least partially in the dark and Su is not prepared to ride in the dark. Sensible, she is. We return the whole 45 km to our guest house.
2/1 Su has a bad day. She decides to give the caves a miss. I decide to have another go at finding the mysterious 'bomb boats' marked on my map. I tell Su that it's only 20 km E of where we start. She rides first and when we get to Nam Teun she just keeps on going. Never mind, she never goes far ahead before stopping. Well, there they are: right under the big bridge there are dozens of boats made from what looks like jet fighter auxiliary fuel tanks. I could swear they weren't there last year... Su doesn't return and it turns out she has gone ahead a very long way. After learning that, and that we have to return (there is only Vietnam ahead, closed to "foreign" vehicles) her mood turns black for a little while.
Old French milestone in Savannakhet. Route 327 doesn't exist any more and Dongha is now in another country, Vietnam.
3/1 The town looks forgettable, with only a few crumbling French colonial buildings, so we are off. Just before Savannakhet we discover two highways, one brand new, neither of which is on any map I have seen. This is a shortcut to the city. Arrived, we head straight for Leena Guest House, where I stayed last year. I have good memories of this place, but this time we get disappointed. The bed in our room is really uncomfortable, making for a long and disturbed night for me. (I think I'm getting old...) When I get off the toilet the broken seat viciously bites me. I go down to ask them to replace it, but no English spoken. (Almost all their guests are foreigners.) Su talks to the receptionist and he assures us we get a new seat today. But, he doesn't get off his seat in front of the TV and, sure enough, nothing happens.
Su's rear tyre finds a big fat rusty nail. Luckily, it only goes through the rubber block, so no puncture this time.
4/1 We move to a much better place for only a little more money. There is nothing much to do in this town, but time passes somehow. My migraines have become more frequent in December and now I'm over the limit with my medication. I decide to start taking prophylaxis again, I still have some pills left over from Mae Sot. This has a somewhat unexpected effect: the next morning I can barely drag myself out of bed. We ride the 150 km down to Pakxe anyway. Pakxe is a happening place, lots of construction going on. It's smaller than Savannakhet, but it seems more alive. Nothing to see, though, except for the Champasak Palace Hotel, a real former palace
6/1 The temporary export permit for Su's bike will expire soon, so I had the bright idea to try to get it extended or get a new one at the border near Pakxe. It's a fairly fast ride the 44 km to the border from Pakxe. Su walks across to Thai customs and they drop a bombshell on her: not only will they not extend the permit, she can't export and import her bike here, because Thai bikes are not allowed to cross this border! Unfortunately, I have to stay in Laos to guard the bike, so I can't ask pertinent questions. When we talk to Lao customs they first tell us that bikes under 100 cc can't enter here, then it's under 150 cc. "Tourist bikes" are ok, meaning big bikes. But if the Thais let Su cross, then it's not a problem for them, as hers is a "big" bike. I decide not to push the matter, as we don't have any Lao paperwork anyway. We will just have to see what happens when we leave Cambodia, if we are allowed in.
Provence? No, Champasak, Laos. But it is French from 1926.
7/1 Heading South out of Pakxe we soon have the road to ourselves. It's long, straight and flat. We make a short side trip to briefly admire the ruins of Wat Phu, supposedly the most impressive Khmer ruins in Laos. To get there requires a trip on a rickety ferry across the Mekong. The ruins don't impress me at all, I'm afraid, but I'm in no shape to climb all the steps anyway.
100 km South of Pakxe is Don Khong, or Khong Island. This area is famous as the "4000 Islands" in the Mekong. The first turn off the highway dumps us high above the river. There are a couple of guys anxious to get us and our bikes across the river on a bike ferry, which is just coming over towards us. However, it is a very steep and long descent in soft sand and presumably the same on the other side. We decline and a local tells us there is a car ferry 4 km down the road. Well, there is a ferry, but it is deserted and no cars waiting to cross, but there are two bike ferries which quickly get us onto the island. We find a comfy place to stay and decide to put our feet up for a few days until I feel better.
8/1 We ride around the South of the island on rented bicycles. It's a pleasant way to see the place, if only I wasn't feeling so tired.
10/1 It's a quick ride down the excellent and empty highway to the Cambodian border. On route we stop at the big Khone Phapheng Falls. It isn't the Niagara Falls, but quite nice all the same. What irks me again is that after paying the entrance fee they then sting us again to park our bikes. At Lao customs we are finished in record time, but we do have to pay overtime charges for crossing on a Saturday. At the Cambodian shack we are met by a sour-faced man who takes us to the customs building. First, he asks for a Carnet de Passages, which we don't have. He then shows us a "Customs Permit", which we apparently need to get from customs in Phnom Penh for 20$. Without it we can't take our bikes into Cambodia. He then sits around, staring into blank space. It is immediately clear to us what he wants: baksheesh. After a while he produces a standard customs declaration form and says that with this and 20$ each we can go. We refuse and after more waiting and staring into blank space on his part we leave, get our Lao exit stamps cancelled and head back to the Thai border at Vangtau. We don't know whether this requirement for a permit is real or merely a scam to extort money from tourists. In any case, it is Cambodia's loss. Our trials are not quite over for the day, though: the Thai customs computer has a problem with my bike, which turns out a failure by customs staff in Mae Sai to do their job. They forgot to cancel my permit when they issued me a new one. We have to wait a long time while customs ring their colleagues in Mae Sai, who then have to search for my old form and punch it into their system before a new permit can be issued. It is almost dark when we finally get away.