Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Day 94 - Tibet closed. Again. (China)

Yesterday there was a huge landslide on the road from Yunnan to Tibet which was our original route. 500m of road was damaged, and the rocks have caused a nearby river to flood. Some 300 vehicles were stuck and had to turn back; I haven't heard whether there were any injuries or deaths. So now it seems it probably doesn't matter what the government decides about our permits, it looks as if we won't be able to get there anyway.

Kazakhstan here we come.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Day 93 - The next stage in Kazakhstan contingency planning. (China)

With only three days until our China entry date, we’ve spent the last week hopeful that the Chinese Government will allow us to go through Tibet. However, even though officially it is now open to tourists and they’re accepting applications, they’re not actually issuing any permits yet. So even though we applied and paid for these permits many months ago, our applications are now sitting on someone’s desk somewhere, essentially it seems, being ignored.

In the mean time we are putting our Kazakh contingency plan in place. We’ve re-evaluated our options for this and decided that mailing our passports whilst in China isn’t a very good idea. It’s illegal to travel without your passport, and in some places I’d take this with a pinch of salt. China though feels like a country where this type of rule is probably best adhered to.

Originally NAVO had told us that we wouldn’t be able to get Kazakh visas in Urumqi, as we had expected, because it is only a visa office mainly positioned for Chinese people doing business in Kazakhstan. But we would be able to get Kyrgyzstan visas at $300+ each. Regardless of the price though, we really didn’t want to go straight to Kyrgyzstan because they don’t have Embassies for all the other countries that we will then need visas for. So it looked as if our options were either to postpone China (at great expense) and organise Kazakh visas before going there (probably by flying back to Bangkok or something), or catch some sort of public transport to Beijing whilst in China. Neither of these options had us particularly overjoyed.

But the good thing about NAVO being a large and reputable company is that they’ve got contacts all over the place, so we heard yesterday that actually they will issue us with Kazakh visas at the Visa Office in Urumqi. It is going to cost $100 each and will take three days, but we’re pretty happy with that. The only problem is that they also want us to have Invitation Letters at another $140 per person, even though Australians are one of 47 nationalities that are not required to have an Invitation Letter.

So now we are just waiting to hear back from both NAVO and the Urumqi Office directly about whether we need to get the Invitation Letter or not. If we do, we have until Thursday (today being Tuesday) to apply for it in time for it to be issued.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Day 91 - Plains of jars. (Laos)

With no more news of Tibet, we’ve continued on our way with our fingers and toes crossed. After our time in Vientiane, we spent a couple of days in Vang Vieng before heading North to Phonsavanh to visit the nearby site called “the plains of jars”. Set 1,100m above sea level, the drive to Phonsavanh involves a pretty intense mountain pass. We were thoroughly grateful not to be in one of the buses that kept overtaking us on blind corners, hurtling around sharp bends, and often causing us to veer to the side of the road in order to avoid a head-on collision.

After the usual wander around to find accommodation, we settled into our rooms and set off for an explore of the town. Five minutes into our explore we bumped into Andy, a photographer from Brixton who we originally met in Vientiane, then bumped into again in Vang Vieng where we ended up spending a day together driving around looking for some caves. So we decided to visit the plains of jars all together the following day. Now being a good looking group of people, we often attract attention; usually tuk-tuk drivers and guest house owners admittedly, but this time it was an English/Italian couple who wanted advice on how to do the plains of jars. Apparently there were next to no tourists in town, and it was going to cost some extortionate price like $25 each to get a tour there. So being the good Samaritans that we are we offered them the 4 Guys in a Car Tour – much cheaper, and a lot more fun.

We spent the evening together at a cheap restaurant where two Vietnamese men at the next table offered us some Lao Lao (local rice whiskey). The lady in the restaurant laughingly told them off and tried to convince us not to drink it. Our Laotion and Vietnamese isn’t crash hot, but through miming and the odd word we’re pretty sure she was telling them to stop trying to make a fool of these nice stupid tourists that have been buying stuff from her, and to us she said beer’s good – it makes you happy, whiskey’s not so good – it makes you puke and sleep. Tunkles and Denner couldn’t resist the cultural experience though and went and sat with the Vietnamese blokes. As far as I can gather the actual conversation was a bit choppy considering they didn’t seem to have any English and I don’t think Tunkles or Denner has any Vietnamese, but it turns out whiskey is the universal language.

In the morning we emptied the boot where we stored Frederica for the day; Ben, Denner, Andy and Nick cosy in the back seat. The main thing that everyone is advised before making this trip is to never leave the track as there are many unexploded bombs, so we carefully made our way up the narrow paths, marked out by coloured stones, to the top of two mounds 50m apart, each scattered with huge stone jars. Some of the jars are entirely intact; others are quite mangled, completely toppled over or marred by bullets. One seemed to have been used to plant a seed in that after several thousands of years, had grown into a huge tree and split the jar into several pieces. Most of them were considerably taller than me, and many were taller than tall people. There are also a few lids inscribed with undiscernible shapes and pictures – although nowhere near one for each jar – scattered around the ground, which themselves were at least half a meter in diameter  and too heavy for three people to lift. The most interesting thing about all this though, is that nobody has any real theory as to what these objects are. They’ve been assumed to be jars because they’re vaguely jar shaped, but other than that there don’t seem to be any really viable ideas about what they were used for. One theory is that they were to store rain water, but we came up with a few more realistic ones. Perhaps the ancient Laotians were giants, and these objects were drinking cups, pots for gardening (that would explain the tree – they might have planted the wrong seed by accident), sugar bowls or some other day to day device. Maybe they were actually midgets and these were houses, schools and shopping centres. Or considering they’re pretty echoey, maybe they’re some sort of communication device, used by calling codes or signals into the jars, which are then picked up by whoever is on the other hill. Then there’s always the possibilities of aliens, and who knows what use they might have had for large stone jars. It’s pretty incredible to see these objects which are so strong and solid, preserved over thousands of years, scattered over so many kilometres in this area, and yet completely un-understood.

As well as loads of these collections of jars, there were some other interesting things in the area. We stopped to have a look at a ruined Russian tank, and a village named Spoon Village (for our benefit we presume - it also has a Laotian name which we assume is not just a translation of Spoon Village). Spoon Village is appropriately named for the three places where they make primarily spoons, but also a variety of other trinkets from old explosives. We were shown the kiln where the metal is melted down and the moulds used to shape the objects, and then we chose souvenirs from a basket of aluminium objects. We’re not hugely into buying loads of souvenirs, but between us we left with a couple of spoons (tea and dessert), bracelets, keyrings in the shape of stars and guitars and a bottle opener or two, each item costing 5,000kip (60c).

After our morning jaunt, we dropped Frederica and Nick back in Phonsavanh and set off with Andy on the 250km drive to Luang Prabang. The next six and a half hours were spent winding our way up and down, around the mountains, through tiny villages and along spectacular cliff-faces, three squeezed along the backseat of the car. This road is the main highway from Laos to China and is barely passable in places for one car, let alone two, and when a truck overloaded with tree roots or a full-sized bus comes hurtling around a hair pin bend, it is enough to remind anyone of their mortality.  As the sun set behind the mountains I found myself driving at ever more excruciatingly slow speeds; squinting into oncoming headlights, unable to see the road, but sure there was probably a dog, a child or a pot hole, not to mention an inevitable blind corner in front  of us. It didn’t help that almost every vehicle flashed their headlights at us. At first we were pretty irate at this, then we realised it’s because they think we’ve left our high beams on. Because our car is a right hand drive the headlights face to the left, which is usually away from oncoming traffic, as it should be. Driving on the right hand side of the road though, means that our headlights are shining directly towards the oncoming cars. There are stickers designed to divert the headlights in this situation, that we should have brought, but until now it wasn’t a thing we’d thought of. I can’t imagine finding them in a convenience store in Laos.

 Usually when approaching one of the main towns in a country it’s safe to assume that the mountain pass will eventually end, allowing an increase in speed and possibly getting a bit more lit up, but this really isn’t the case with Luang Prabang. In fact as we approached the town we wondered if we’d missed a turn off somewhere, because even 5km out we still seemed to be winding our way around completely unlit mountains. Eventually though we arrived in the town, exhausted, stiff and very hungry.

We now have a few days in Luang Prabang, which will be our last stop (except for the border town) until we arrive in China on Friday 29th.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Day 87 – Kazakhstan or Tibet?

So far our journey has really been very relaxing and holiday-like, with nothing more than a couple of dodgy police checks to worry about. Since finding out that Tibet was closed just over a week ago though, we’ve had to switch our brains back on and start working on devising contingency plans. Originally it looked hopeful that Tibet would re-open in time for us to get there, but we explored the options of entering India, Pakistan or Kazakhstan anyway in the event that Tibet remained closed. In my post of Day 75 I outlined some of the pros and cons (mainly cons to be honest) of each option, but basically we had come to the realisation that the only feasible contingency plan for going around Tibet was going North through China, skirting the Easter border of Tibet, and entering Kazakhstan directly.

In our months of research before leaving Melbourne, we had devised a very specific plan of where and when to get all our paperwork and visas for the countries between Iran and Kazakhstan. Each country has very particular requirements in terms of time lines and Letters of Invitation etc, and which Embassies we can apply at. The best place for us to organise all these visas though was India, the problem of course now being that if we can’t go through Tibet to get to Nepal and India, then where can we get our Kazakh visas? There is no such thing as visas on arrival, at all, ever, in this part of the world. Unfortunately by the time we found out about the situation we were already in Laos, which is hardly a hub of worldwide activity, and even finding internet was impossible anywhere outside the capital. The only country between here and Kazakhstan, if Tibet doesn’t re-open, is China, and we’re not going anywhere near the capital. As our entry date to China (June 29th) was drawing ever closer, we started to get a bit concerned and decided we really had to put the Kazakhstan plan into place.

Unfortunately we realised all of this on Friday afternoon in Vientiane. We decided that our two options were to stay in Vientiane until Monday morning and visit the Russian Embassy (there’s no Kazakh Embassy in Laos, and being CIS countries they have agreements with each other to offer consular services), or keep driving North and hope that the Kazakh passport office in Urumqi, near the China/Kazakh border, would be able to issue us with visas. Frustratingly, we couldn’t find anything out from anyone (Kazakh Embassies in Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and China, Russian and Australian Embassies in Laos or our Chinese Tour Company) over the weekend.

So we made the decision to stay in Vientiane over the weekend and visit the Russian Embassy on Monday morning, hoping that they’d be able to at least give us some advice or help with correspondence. We filled in our application forms, printed off a travel itinerary and set off. When we rounded the corner and the building came into view, we knew immediately that we’d found the right Embassy – it was a large, gray, Soviet style building, surrounded by mouldy and rusty spiked fences. The gates on each side of the complex were closed, locked, handless and lacking of any human presence other than security cameras on each corner. It certainly wasn’t the most inviting building, and considering none of the security booths seemed to be manned and there was no conceivable visitors’ entrance, we wondered whether it was even still in use. We did eventually manage to find a security guard, who we asked to help us in accessing the building. Bizarrely, he asked a nearby gardener who pointed towards one of the very locked looking gates.

We were greeted by a nice Russian lady, who asked us to take a seat in the extremely retro, Soviet style waiting room, while she got someone to come and help us. First we were met by the Vice Consul, who was very nice but quite confused by our request. So we waited a while longer, until the Consul came and greeted us. He wasn’t overly impressed by our request, explaining to us that Kazakhstan is an independent country. Very patronisingly he asked whether we would visit the Russian Embassy if we wanted an Argentinean visa, or a Sudanese visa. We tried to tell him that we understand that Kazakhstan and Russia aren’t the same country, but we’re aware that they have agreements (like EU countries, or like Australia and New Zealand have) to represent each other in countries where only one of them has an Embassy. Still adamant that he could do nothing for us, we were sent on our way.

Somewhat disheartened, we decided to visit the Australian Embassy. We didn’t expect much, but as it was only a couple of blocks away, it seemed we didn’t have anything to lose. Sure enough, we were told that this Embassy doesn’t even issue Australian visas and they don’t really know much about anything. So back we went to our hotel. By now it was 11am and we were getting quite anxious. We were well aware that all these embassies close at midday, and we still had to decide whether we were staying in Vientiane another night or not, before midday checkout.

We were now considering our options to be flying one or two of us (the cost of last minute flying being an issue) to Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur or Singapore to visit a Kazakh Embassy in person. We jumped on the internet straight away, trying to find the cheapest and most feasible options for flights that day, but it was looking as if about $200 pp one way was the best we could do. And then we discovered that the website of the Embassy in Bangkok which seemed to be the best option, gave their opening times as Monday, Wednesday and Friday 10am – 12pm, which considering it was now after 11am on Monday, meant we wouldn’t be able to be seen until Wednesday. Their website also stated that applicants must visit the Embassy in person. In this case, maybe it would be better for us to drive? And we still didn’t know whether we’d be able to apply in Urumqi or not. Things were starting to get a bit confusing, and we really didn’t have time to be mucking about.

So Denner and I left Tunkles and Ben to continue checking flights and Embassy websites while we set off to find an overseas call centre. We couldn’t get onto the Embassies in Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur or NAVO (our Tour Company in China), but we eventually got an answer from Singapore. The man on the other end of the line spoke good enough English, but he had a hefty accent and was a bit vague in general. Mainly what I wanted to know was just whether all four of us had to be at the Embassy in order for us all to get visas. After 15 frustrating and expensive minutes during which he tried to explain something to me about Korea, and I described the location of Laos and Vientiane to him as he’d never heard of either, I gathered that we could send our passports and application forms to the Embassy by registered post with a return paid envelope, but it would take 5-7 working days, plus postage time, with no option whatsoever of an express service. This was 11 days before our China entry date. 11 days was only 9 working days, so this really didn’t leave much time for us getting our passports back before getting to China. By now it was 11:45, and things were getting pretty intense. We stood and stared at each other for five minutes, each of us contemplating the possibility of us sending our passports off in this postage system that we were hesitant to trust with postcards. We were just about to try phoning NAVO again, when we realised we would be able to send it from China where we have three weeks instead of one. This meant we could continue on our way in Laos, and have our guide help us with registered post once we crossed the border. The only problem with this plan is that we’d be travelling in China with no passports for at least a week or so, but this seemed like the only really feasible option. A weight was lifted off our shoulders – not completely, but a good chunk of it; enough that we could stand up straight again – and off we went back to the hotel, feeling pretty chuffed with ourselves.

Tom and Ben were sitting in the foyer and when we arrived back we were greeted with a tense, “where have you guys been? It’s 11:55, what’s the story?” We explained briefly, “it’s ok, we can mail our stuff from China, and in the meantime we can check out of here and leave Vientiane”, to which they responded, “well that’s good, but we’ve got a better plan”. A better plan? Surely not – our’s was pretty good. “Tibet’s open!”

The rest of that weight was lifted off our shoulders and we all skipped around for a bit. We checked out of the hotel and on we went to Vang Vieng. We absolultely couldn't believe that Tibet had opened right then. If it had happened a day earlier, even twelve hours earlier, even four hours earlier, all of this stress and hassle would have been avoided. Had it happened a couple of hours later, we had been extremely close to either sending one or two of us off on very expensive flights with all of our passports, or driving all the way back to Bangkok, or most scarily mailing our passports in the Laotian mail.

Then yesterday (the day after all of this happened), I got an email from Tracy, our NAVO correspondent, saying that our applications for Tibet permits have been denied. She is re-applying for us, and we are hoping to hear today that they have reviewed our case and will allow us to go through.

Of course we are still reviewing contingency plans. Basically it seems we could mail our applications from China to either the Kazakh Embassy in Singapore or Beijing (although we’d have to contact Beijing to confirm), but travelling around in China with no passports is not a safe move. Or we could get Kyrgyzstan visas in Urumqi but it would cost us about $300 each. We're not able to get Kazakh visas in Urumqi.

Fingers crossed Tibet lets us through!

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Day 83 - Food Critics

South East Asian food is something that as Melbournians, these four guys are pretty familiar with. What is really interesting though is witnessing first hand what South East Asian food is really like in South East Asia. We’ve all got slightly different opinions on the matter, but general consensus (from us, but amongst other travellers we’ve spoken to along the way aswell) is that Cambodian food is pretty outstanding, and Laotian leaves a lot to be desired.
In Cambodia there was quite a variety of dishes. There were Thai type meals such as noodles and rice, with some Vietnamese presence evident with options like rice paper rolls and some of the salads. We noticed a strong French influence prevalent in baguette stands and bakeries, not to mention many French restaurants, along with some really good Western food available that we just haven't found anywhere else. Yet it was still possible to get uniquely Cambodian dishes such as Amok. The thing that made it so outstanding though was the obvious freshness in ingredients, and most importantly there was usually a good deal of effort put into preparation.
The first problem with Laotian food is that in most places it takes a good deal of effort to get somebody's attention just to give you a menu or take an order. They're then often reluctant to let on how much anything costs, and when you eventually do get around to ordering, you then have to wait for a ridiculous amount of time to receive your food. This would probably not be so much of a problem if we were then presented with something filling and/or tasty, but this is rarely the case. It's pretty hard to find anything that’s not noodles or rice cooked in a little bit of soy sauce with a smattering of undercooked veggies and tough meat.
During our time in Malaysia, we mainly ate in Indian restaurants. There was a particular layout that we became pretty accustomed to; inside but open-air, the menu printed along the top of the wall behind some bain-maries and a large open cooking space. Here we could get anything along the lines of curry, naan, chapatti, omelette etc, with a huge selection available, and were usually able to satisfy ourselves pretty well for about 1-3 Ringit (3R = $1).
Most establishments in Thailand offered a pretty standard menu of noodles, noodle soups, and fried rice, although there was often quite a selection of specifics. Western food was available in some places but we never went in for is, as it was always extortionately priced and rarely looked very appetising. Two things though that between the four of us made everyone happy were the brilliant selection of condiments always ready to pour over every meal, and the abundance of fruit shake stalls all over the place; both things that we’ve missed since departing from Thailand.
We’re quite excited about what food we might experience in China, although at the same time it’s also a bit worrying what we could be faced with. Surely we’ve all already eaten dog, cat, monkey, rat and who knows what else so far, but other than once instance of oddly textured sausage and another where some brain was visible in our soup, we’ve been able for the most part to just assume that it is just chicken, pork or beef.


We've just added a brand new album of some silly stuff. It's called Silly Stuff, and you can find it on our facebook page.


Friday, 15 June 2012

Day 82 – Police checks. (Laos)

 Driving around in South East Asia in our foreign registered vehicle, we have become somewhat accustomed to being targeted for random police checks. We’ve managed to avoid any unwarranted “fines” or “fees” as of yet, but just yesterday we had another near miss when we were pulled over for fictitiously running a red light. Having stopped at the red turning light, two policemen on a scooter pulled in front of us, gesturing for us to do a u-turn, as the light turned green and we started moving. Unable to get around for the u-turn we continued in the direction we were intending, and pulled over at the side to see what they wanted. Ben (the driver at the time) was asked for his driver’s licence, which because we’re actually staying in a proper hotel is inside our room along with our passports. Fortunately our International Driver’s Permits (on which is printed THIS IS NOT A LICENCE, and is only valid in conjunction with the licence of the driver’s respective country, but nobody ever seems to notice/understand/care about this) is kept in our paperwork file in the boot, so we were able to pull that out. They had a look at it for a few seconds and then started driving off with it. They had absolutely no English, but they seemed to be asking us to follow them to who knows where. We were pretty sure we heard them say “bank”, but weren’t sure if we were being paranoid. Of course they couldn’t/wouldn’t give us any indication of what we were supposedly being pulled over for – just a random “check” we assumed. So with Ben’s Driving Permit in the hands of the policeman on the scooter, we really had no choice but to follow. They took us around the block to a police checkpoint at the lights we’d been pulled over at, conveniently located in the forecourt of a bank, 10meters from the ATM. We all got out to see what was going on, to discover the red light story. The ridiculous thing is that it wasn’t even an amber light, or that we’d entered the intersection early or anything – we were about the fifth car to go through the green light, with at least half a dozen cars and who knows how many scooters following us while it was still green. It was just so blatant, but that doesn’t matter here – it’s their word against ours. At first he wanted to keep the licence and have us collect it in a week from the police station, paying a fine while we were there. Then he said we could do it the following day. Now Ben has a tendency to get a bit aggressive in these types of situations (which usually pays off brilliantly), but he read this one differently and realised that card wouldn’t work. So instead he spent the next thirty minutes or so appealing to these men’s sense of good will, saying things like “you know this isn’t right, I know you’re good men, come on, you know this”, and explaining our travel plans and our tight schedule, drawing a map for them and naming countries. There were two that we were mainly talking to (not the two that originally pulled us over), and we could see one of them softening, but the other one was dead set on us paying up. So they came up with the option that we could pay the fine there and then – we’re supposing that the point of going to the police station is so that they can get a big fine from us, but I guess any fine’s better than no fine. Ben continued in the same manner, and pointed out the website printed on the car. This seemed to flick some switch - maybe they were worried we were something official, who knows – and a few minutes later, Ben was handed back his licence and we were allowed to go.

On the other hand though, sometimes being foreign can deter them from bothering with us. Today we went through a police check very close to the Thai border, where everybody was being pulled over and checked for licence, insurance etc. We pulled over along with the rest of traffic, and about 10 seconds later the policeman looked in the window, spotted we weren’t local, and waved us on. I guess there where they’re pulling everyone over, it’s a waste of their time to check us seeing they don’t actually know what they’re checking.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Day 79 - Car incidents. (Laos)

We’ve really done well with the car so far. Other than a minor ding in Thailand (Blog Day 34 - Car accident #1), and an embarrassing realisation that we don’t get as many kilometres on our LPG tank as expected (Day 2 - Adelaide/Balgowan), we just haven’t had any car or driving related issues. Then almost three months into our trip, we suddenly experience two minor but somewhat eventful incidents within the space of three days.

The first was two days ago, on a narrow and winding mountain pass where we stopped to take a photo of the spectacular view over the surrounding mountains.  We’d just visited the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which required us to traverse a fairly rocky and holey path for several kilometres, a few rickety wooden bridges along the way. So after stopping for a moment to snap a shot out the window, we continued a few meters down the hill and realised we were now driving on three tyres and a rim. Fortunately we had the foresight to employ Denner on an embarrassingly low salary to come on the trip as Car Man, and it was only a matter of minutes until the spare wheel was off the roof, the other wheels were secured with rocks (Ben and I did a really great job of finding three appropriately sized rocks), the boot was unpacked in order to get the hand jack out of its spot right at the back with all the other things such as the medical kit that we think we’ll never need but keep having to drag out, and the process was under way. Turns out being prepared with the right equipment is a good thing – that’s what we pay Denner for. The only issue we came across is that he hadn’t thought about the fact that a flat tyre is smaller than a new one, and therefore our chain to tie it to the roof rack was too small. Fortunately we had made the ridiculous decision in Port Klang to keep the ropes that secured our shipping container – chopped in sections and incredibly dirty – and were able to use one of them to tie the tyre down a bit tighter. We’re not sure if the puncture was from some sort of sharp rock or other object on the road, or more likely a nail or such like sticking out of one of the bridges, but seeing as I was driver for the day, general consensus is that it’s mainly because there was a woman driving. Anyway it took less than half an hour to swap tyres, and cost 25,000 Kip ($3) to repair (admittedly not the best of repairs), and happened to occur at a point that had a particularly stunning view, so no need to worry.

The second incident occurred today, and was actually quite a lot of fun. We drove from Ban Na Hin where we stayed for the night to Tham Kong Lo, which is the 7km cave that we were planning on visiting when we accidentally took the turn to Xepon instead. The drive itself was quite amazing, the road winding through a vast expanse of rice fields and villages. Some of the rice fields are deep in mud/fertiliser, some are completely covered in water like a pond, and the most beautiful ones are a sea of brilliant green, where the rice plant is growing through the water and shimmering in the sun. When the fields are ready for harvesting, the people from the villages wade out, upto their knees and higher in water, collecting their livelihood in neat bunches. And behind all this, the sheer and jagged mountains surrounding the plateau jut up out of nowhere.

So anyway, we got to the caves and paid our 5,000 Kip (60c) for car parking and 2,000 Kip (25c) each to enter the area. Unfortunately the car park was far from paved, and there’d been quite a bit of rain in the previous day or two, so we switched Trevor to four wheel drive and continued on our way. It’s pretty fun slipping and sliding between the trees, one wheel sticking to a bit of mud, then jolting us forward when it slips out, bumping over bits of rock or hard mud, and trying to go around portions of the ground that look particularly wet or deep. This of course was all very well and good until we reached a spot where there just wasn’t an around option and we had to go through a bit of track that was covered in soft mud half the height of our tyres. Needless to say, we got completely bogged. As it turns out, mud tyres can be useful, but that’s not what we had, so we had to resort to other methods. Again, it was Denner’s time to shine – twice in three days! We arranged bunches of twigs and logs in front of the stuck tyres and tried gripping to them. Not enough. We tried all the backwards and sidewards steering options, but we really were well and truly stuck. So we unpacked everything from the boot in order to get the winch out, which was of course packed with the hand jack and the medical kit and all the other things we hope we don’t actually need to ever use but keep having to bring out, and decided it best to leave the boot unpacked for the process. So with all our worldly possessions stacked up in the mud a few meters away, we got to winching. Then we discovered that the rope attached to the winch was about an inch too short to reach the most appropriately placed tree. So once again we pulled out the straps from our shipping container, which we saved for some peculiar reason, sure they’d never come in handy but somehow unable to throw out anyway. Now the length was too long to get enough tension so we gave up on the winching idea. During this whole process we had attracted quite an audience. Around twenty men who drive the boats through the cave we were trying to visit had been sitting around watching us from a distance, and in dribs and drabs had wandered over to get a closer look. A local family had also appeared out of nowhere to witness the ridiculous white people with their huge car bogged in mud. So with all hands on deck, we lined up along the rope attached to our tow bar and pulled. Straight away, the rope that’s supposed to withstand 4 tonnes, snapped and everyone flew backwards into the mud. All our new friends though, were well and truly in it for the long haul and weren’t about to give up because of a little mud. So we got out yet another rope, and with a line of pullers at the front, and a row of pushers at the back, Trevor revved and skidded and flew forwards out of the bog. Happy with their efforts, our helpers gave themselves a round of applause and Ben and Denner played Doctor to the guy who grazed his elbow during the Great Fall of Rope Pulling. We carefully chose a less muddy route back out of the car park and covered in mud, finally made our way to purchasing a boat trip through the cave, happy to give our new friends some well earned business.

After all this hoo ha, it was quite a relief to finally make it to Tham Kong Lo cave, through which we took a spectacular two hour boat trip for 110,000 Kip ($14) per boat (2 people). For the most part, they take you through the massive cave, the only light being the small head torches they use and whatever light you’ve thought to bring – we were very glad for the decent torches we’d brought along. We got out at a couple of spots – the first place was to walk through a passage lined in stalactites and stalagmites, many of them joined to each other and forming groups, sometimes metres wide and in an incredible variety of shapes. Our next stop was to walk upstream in some rapids, as the boat could only make it when it with no passengers. And the last stop was so that our drivers could sit down and have a cigarette.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Day 78 - A night spent in squalor, and an accidental detour to the Ho Chi Minh Trail. (Laos)

We made the decision the night before last to detour from the main road to visit the old colonial town of Sevannakhet, thinking it could be an interesting spot to check out. Although incredibly dilapidated, it was a pretty cool town; the streets lined with all the old French buildings and a variety of Communist posters. Unfortunately the guesthouse situation wasn’t quite as abundant as we would have hoped or expected, so for lack of options we ended up settling on one of the dingier places we’ve seen so far. And by that I mean it was the true backpacking through Asia experience. Our bathroom was a squat toilet and a hose underneath a tin shelter on the roof, and Tom and Tom were pretty dismayed when they realised the bundle of gross between the heads of their beds was in fact an old condom. We could have spent a bit more and stayed somewhere that chose to clean their rooms between guests, but there is something strangely satisfying about roughing it a little.
We set off in the morning, heading North on the No. 13 towards Vientiene, with the intention of stopping at Tham Long Ko, a cave we’ve heard about that sounds pretty spectacular. About an hour and a half after setting off, we started looking for landmarks to find the turnoff. To our embarrassment though, we discovered that we were in fact facing South on the No. 9. Realising that the only possible mistake we’d made was 20 km from our start point, we decided to think outside the square and consider options other than just turning straight back. And lo and behold, we figured out we were almost at the Vietnam border at a point where we could visit the Ho Chi Minh Trail. So we took a quick team vote and decided to change our plans for the next couple of days and include this detour.


A few photos in the Laos album.


Thursday, 7 June 2012

Day 76 - Cambodia/Laos border crossing: A caravan and a tin shed

I now backtrack to Day 73 when we arrived in Laos, across the border with Cambodia.

The North of Cambodia is really quite uninhabited, and as we approached the border crossing we realised we hadn’t passed any other vehicles for some time. There wasn’t even the usual smattering of huts and platforms on stilts throughout the fields, and we saw more “don’t walk here, you might get blown up by a landmine” signs than we saw in the whole of the rest of Cambodia.

We stopped a few kilometres short of the crossing to get out our passports and paperwork and separate our cash. We all kept around $5 in $1 notes in our wallets to be used as “fees” if necessary, careful not to have too much in case it comes to an “empty your pockets” situation. Then we had $35 each stashed but readily available for our Laotian visa when we got to that side of the border, and the rest of our cash stashed as safely as possible inside bags in the boot.

And on to the border. This really was the middle of nowhere – there was no building higher than a couple of meters, and it was so hot and still that the few people that were around weren’t doing a whole lot of moving. The usual group of tuk-tuk drivers, guesthouse spruikers, shop keepers and locals carting goods across the border were just nowhere to be seen.

There was a handful of cars parked at the side of the road, but unsure of exactly what the protocol was we drove up to the boom gate, where we were waved at and told to go back and park with the other cars. There were of course a couple of ladies under corrugated iron roofs who tried to sell us cold drinks from their ice chests as we were parking, but we resisted their offers and walked up to the small wooden hut  at the boom gate. There we were greeted by two policemen, their jackets strewn to the side in the unforgiving heat, who told us to go to Customs for our car.

Customs was one of a handful of huts a few meters behind Passport Control, this one with four walls, but both bare except for a table and chair, and the officers’ jackets hanging on nails in the corner. As we approached, the man sitting outside in front of the “Customs” sign quickly got up and went inside to his desk. He stared at us for a bit, and then asked for our papers, to which we told him we don’t need any because the car’s a temporary import and we’re using a Carnet. And then he repeated “your papers?”, and he got the same response. After repeating the same thing a few times, he seemed to be satisfied and sent us back to Passport Control. The two original policemen were happy enough that we’d gone to Customs and so proceeded to stamp our passports out of Cambodia. The” fee” required for this privilege is $2 per person, and this certainly isn’t a border where we were inclined to argue with the men with guns. There was one other civilian there at this time who had a handful of Vietnamese passports. We assume one of the parked cars was his, but we’re not sure who all the other cars belonged to, or where all the people were whose passports he had.

Once our “fees” were paid, the manual boom gate (operated by a rope at one end) was lifted for us and we entered No Man’s Land once again. This one was a lot less note worthy than our last experience at Poipet, where we spent a night in a Casino between the borders. Here we were faced with 100 meters of road, and a handful of Laotian guards playing bocce under a tarpaulin. Once again we parked at the boom gate, and this time with our $35 on hand, walked past the boom gate to the caravan parked under a tin roof, proudly flying the hammer and sickle, that was Laotian Visa and Passport Services.

At Window 1 we were given our arrival/departure cards to fill in, with one pen between us. A small veranda had been built in front of the caravan, resulting in the windows being uncomfortably low (even for tiny me), but if you’re willing to stand doubled up with your head at waist height,  it was possible to get a brief but terrific blast of the air conditioning from inside. So one at a time we handed over our filled in cards and passports to Window 1, where we were charged only $30 for the visa (everything we’d previously referenced said it would be $35, and we had been prepared for them to ask for more, so this was a pleasant surprise not to be argued with) and asked to go to Window 2. At Window 2 we waited while that guy finished reading his magazine so he could wake up the other guy, who came and returned our passports to us for a “fee” of $2 per person.

Back to Trevor we went, a weight lifting off our shoulders as the boom gate was raised for us. Straight ahead there’s a grand gate under construction, with a wide new road going through it, but in the mean time there’s a very narrow unsealed track that goes around this future gate. This is the road we entered Laos on.

Of course we got all excited at this point, what with having successfully entered another country. But alas, we realised our excitement was premature when we reached another boom gate a couple of kilometres down the road. A man waved us over from the side of the road, and we realised the brick building here was Customs and he wanted to see our Carnet. Laos isn’t even a country subscribed to the Carnet, but ok. The man at the window flicked through, obviously confused, as Ben tried to point him to the bit he actually needed to look at. Then he ran off with our $950 document, and so we ran off after him, adamant not to let it out of our sight. We realised he’d gone to get his boss to do the signing, who drove his scooter across the road and met us at a bunch of plastic chairs and a table under a tarpaulin. This is where the glorious ceremony of the signing of the Carnet took place. Each country gets one page in the booklet, which is split vertically into three sections with perforations in between. The bottom section should be signed and stamped and kept by Customs for their records on import. The middle section should be done on export, and the top section stays in our booklet signed and stamped on both import and export. Much to our frustration though, he jumped in and signed the wrong side of the top section. Ben spoke up straight away, and this guy obviously having no idea what the story was, just signed and stamped the other side as well. Satisfied with this, the boss scootered himself back across the road to continue hanging out, and we chased the first guy back to his window, where he retrieved the slip from a previous Carnet as reference of what he was supposed to do now. He tore off the bottom part of the page (which is actually correct), and sent us on our way for no fee – a nice surprise. So according to our document we have already imported and exported the car to Laos, and because they never signed or stamped their part, they don’t actually have a record of us ever having our car here.

Once again we set on our way, chastising ourselves for having gotten prematurely excited about successfully crossing the border. This time however, it seems we had completed all the required tasks and were able to make our way onto Don Det in the 4,000 Islands where have now spent the last three days.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Day 75 - Problems with Tibet. (China)

We've just received news from our Chinese tourguide that Tibet is now closed to foreign travellers. As our route goes straight through Tibet, this is a bit of an inconvenience to us. We are of course hoping that the situation will be rectified in the six or so weeks between now and when we get there, which seems somewhat likely considering it was also closed at this exact time last year and re-opened a month later.

In the mean time we obviously have to consider contingency plans. Other possible border crossings are Pakistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. We've basically ruled out Pakistan already, as we only have a single entry visa so we wouldn't be able to backtrack to India, Nepal and Bangladesh anyway. If we were to chose Tajikistan or Kazakhstan, we would be missing India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Ironically these are the four countries (as well as China) that we have already paid hundreds of dollars for visas for. The chunk of countries we're looking at skipping makes up about two months of our trip.


There are now a few photos in the Laos album.


Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Day 73 - Otres Beach; so much more than a tourist beach. (Cambodia)

I briefly touched on the topic in the post of Day 69, but now I will share some more about what we learned during our stay at Otres Beach. 

The road to the beachfront takes you past a small shanty town of shacks made predominantly from corrugated iron and wood, and before we knew anything about the place we were struck by the obvious poverty of the people living in this community.

We chose to stay at Moonlight Rock Guesthouse, mainly because it was the cheapest, most relaxed looking, and had the friendliest staff; but after spending a few days speaking to Chris, Vanja and Heino about the area, we were sure we had made the right decision. Chris has been at Otres Beach for three years and in that time he has learned a lot about the area and the people, and has found himself part of the local Khmer family.

Some time ago, the villagers inhabiting the shanty village we drove past when we arrived at Otres Beach were evicted from their land by the government; some of their houses even burnt down with all of their belongings still inside. They have been working on rebuilding their community, but with minimal resources and money it is very hard for them to do so. Chris, Vanja and Heino, along with a handful of other proprietors on Otres Beach have taken it upon themselves to assist the locals where they can. They have already helped them in building sustainable homes, providing some jobs, and raising funds to erect a self-composting toilet block on wheels. Many of the people were sick with diseases such as malaria or dengue fever, so they have all been given the opportunity of treatment and vaccinations.

Moonlight Rock Guesthouse is a new establishment, only four months old. Before this Chris had another guesthouse on Otres Beach, but like the locals, he too was was evicted from his land by the government. It is now a blank space and they’re not sure what the purpose of emptying it was. There are many other examples of this type of thing happening all over the place. In fact, it’s likely that the entire beachfront will be claimed by the government within the next few years.

The current project that money is being raised for is to provide each home in the village with a water filter that can produce 1-3 litres of purified water per hour – plenty for a family to survive on. They are looking for a total of $675 which will be enough to buy around 100 of these devices, and really assist in the next step of helping this Khmer community. If anybody would like to donate financially, or find out some more information about anything to do with this issue, I would urge you to contact Chris at http://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/Moonlight-Rock-Resort-Beach-Bar/233323310050287, or you can check the website about this specific project at www.hyrologichealth.com .

And certainly if you’re planning on being anywhere near the South of Cambodia at any point, I would highly recommend Moonlight Rock – whether it be to stay there, or just to have a chat or a meal. The kitchen – staffed by locals – produces the most amazing food. The variety is so wide, the standards were so high and the portions were so huge, that we really couldn’t bring ourselves to eat anywhere else. A week later, I'm still struggling to.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Day 71 - Petrol pumps, happy fields and difficult decisions. (Cambodia)

We spent today driving from Kratie, where we stayed last night, to Banlung, in the North East of Cambodia. A lot of what we drove through was pretty deserted, reminding us a bit of driving through the centre of Australia - except for the bright green fields, the puddles and the lots of pretty big foliage. It was really the first time since we've been in Asia though that we experienced somewhere so unpopulated.

Luckily we had made the smart decision of filling up with petrol before leaving Kratie in the morning - even though the trend has been that it's cheaper in the countryside than in the cities and towns. We did pass a couple of petrol stations in the 300 km between Kratie and Banlung, but these establishments consisted of a couple of small plastic canisters (sometimes bottles) with a handmade pump attached, usually at the front of somebody's house. Not exactly what we want to be piling into Trevor if we can avoid it, and I highly doubt they have the 50 litres necessary to fill up our tank. I'm sure it's only a matter of time until we really have to deal with one of these places, but for now, we have once again succeeded on buying proper petrol.

There was some very interesting scenery to observe on our drive today, not least of all about 100 kilometres of marijuana fields. When we first realised what it was we were all pretty excited and of course got out to take some photos. And then we realised it just kept going and going and going. One theory is that these plants are harvested for hemp, but really we're not sure. I tried smoking some only to be informed by the boys that I had chosen the one pine tree in the area and I was trying to smoke the bark.

When we arrived in Banlung we did our usual quick look in Lonely Planet for some guidelines as to which areas to look for accommodation in. Then usually we split up and walk around, congregating after a while to compare options and make a decision. The decision making normally comes down to a vote, often involving lots of toing and froing, everybody getting frustrated and way too much wasted time. The last few places where we've split, it's been into Teams Eilidh/Tunkles and Denner/Ben, and each time Team Eilidh/Tunkles finds the best place, so we've sort of become the dream team. We did this usual dance of pros and cons with our options in Banlung - $5 (2 people) in a basic room at a nice hotel with good parking but nowhere cool to hang out; $7 at the same hotel but in a really posh room; or $7 for a wooden building (so fly nets around the beds), basic but cool jungly type room, and a nice place to hang out with a good view. We were so torn that the usual voting system just didn't cut it and we resorted to a coin flip (awkward when you're in a country that only has paper currency, but we found one none the less), which we then ended up voting against anyway, choosing the third option. And so here we are sitting in a wooden hut overlooking the valley we're on the side of.

Friday, 1 June 2012



There's a few more photos in our Cambodia album now.

Day 69 - Otres Beach, friendly policemen, factories, and cows. (Cambodia)

We've found ourselves back in Phnom Penh this evening. It wasn't exactly what we planned, we just slept in too long this morning (and sort of didn't want to leave Otres Beach in a hurry) and couldn't make it as far as we would have hoped. We'll only be staying the one night though, and getting back on the road in the morning.

We just spent three days on Otres Beach, relaxing, swimming and meeting other travellers, as one does in such a place. What made our experience of Otres Beach so special though, was learning from the owners of our guesthouse about the plight of the local Khmer community and some of the aid projects that they and some other ex-pats on the beach are involved in. I'll write more about this later on, but in the meantime I would highly recommend that anybody planning on visiting the area would make a trip to Otres Beach.

On the way out of Otres Beach we drove through the golden lion roundabout (it's a roundabout with a statue of a golden lion in the centre) in Sihanoukville. We found out later that this spot is renound for random police blocks, one of which we experienced. Of course we were waved over, at which point Denner (who was driving) was asked to step out of the car with his driver's licence. And then he was asked for his International Driving Permit. The policeman was pretty disappointed to find that we had all the necessary paperwork, so he decided that Ben should be fined for not wearing a seatbelt. He was happy though for Ben to "make friends with him to make the fine go away", but of course Ben wasn't having a bar of it and we drove off bribe free.

Driving into Phnom Penh this afternoon we realised it was rush hour. At first we thought the screeds of people waiting at the side of the road and piling into vans and trucks were kids knocking off school for the day. But then we realised that the area we were driving through was industrial, and these people must have been ending their day's work on the factory floor. We could barely fathom the sheer number of people (of which the vast majority were young women) streaming out of the factories, lining both sides of the road, and squeezed into and onto an abundance of minivans, utes and semi-trailers. I don't know much about the type of lifestyle that factory workers in Cambodia would lead, but I'm fairly confident it would be slightly less luxurious than what I'm used to. And yet all the faces I managed to catch a quick glimpse of, were smiling.

As well as the regular traffic obstacles of cars, trucks, bicycles, scooters, potholes, children, street vendors and funerals, we have had to avoid a few cows here and there whilst driving through the countryside. Usually it's just a matter of slowing down a bit (or not, whichever), giving them a honk, and then driving around. What makes it tricky though is when you're on the already cluttered roads of suburban Phnom Penh, and there are about eight cows, none of whom are remotely interested in removing themselves from the road. Even the skinny Cambodian breeds are quite hefty, and so they seem to be the only thing that every other vehicle will actually stop for. And then it got me thinking about my road crossing method. Seeing as even the big cars stop for cows, maybe I should dismiss the "pretend you're a car" method, and replace it with the probably more effective "pretend you're a cow" method.