We had become accustomed to cycling with our heads down, avoiding eye contact with adults due to the number of times our smiles were met with blank stares in Laos. When we hit Thailand everything changed. Each time we glanced around us there were friendly faces full of smiles. It couldn’t help but lift our spirits and almost instantly we both fell in love with these happy people. The children were not as wild and extravagant in their greetings as their Laotian peers but we were always met with shy smiles and polite calls of “hello” as we pedalled past the hordes of smartly dressed kids on their way to and from school.
It was immediately clear that we had entered a wealthier country. There was a sharp increase in the number of four-wheeled vehicles on the road (although no less erratic driving), good roads complete with hard shoulder (for avoiding those erratic drivers), Seven-Elevens on every corner and the ubiquitous Tesco Lotus. There were also an exceptional number of rather too large bellies on display, although I’m not sure I blame them given the vast array of delicious food Thailand has to offer (SE Asia obesity article here).
After one too many meals of watery noodle soups with a few meagre chunks of unidentified meat in Laos, we were hanging out for some good food. We were not disappointed. Our new favourite roadside breakfast quickly became barbecued chicken and sticky rice –we find it virtually impossible to pedal past once the smell has wafted over us. Unfortunately, barbecued rodents are still to be found here – more than once we have been enticed in by the faint plume of smoke rising from a homemade barrel BBQ and the smell of burning charcoal mixed with sizzling meat only to be repulsed by the rather large tails dangling from fire blackened bodies. Not even cycling all day makes me (or Steven) that hungry!
We had initially planned to cut directly across the north east of Thailand on our way back into the south of Laos but at the last minute we changed our mind and decided to meander with the Mekong. As I was packing up the last of our gear in our room in Nong Khai, Steven appeared in the door white faced. He had been loading up our bikes when a snake had slithered out from its hiding place under a mudguard. Anyone who knows Steven well will know he is petrified of these creatures. This is a fear he is having to face on an almost daily basis in south east Asia as they often dart out into the road in front of us as we are cycling. It is unsurprising that we have seen hundreds of squashed ones as well. All visits to the bathroom (aka bushes on the roadside) are accompanied by much stamping of the ground, bashing of the undergrowth with sticks and singing of the “snake song”. Yes, any observer would conclude that we are lunatics.
Our days, as they always do, quickly fell into a routine. Rising before the sun and cycling in the relative cool of the morning, stop for breakfast BBQ, stop for a caffeine fix in the form of delicious iced coffee which can be found in small roadside shacks everywhere in Thailand, stop for lunch, stop for ice cream, stop altogether in one of the languid riverside towns and do as the locals do – laze away the scorching afternoons in the shade before coming back to life as the sun goes down. It is quite clear from writing this that our life at the moment revolves around trying to stay as cool as possible – not an easy task when travelling by bicycle in the tropics. It doesn’t seem long ago that we were in the Uzbek desert wearing every layer of clothing possible, having to stop and walk every few kilometres to bring the feeling back into our toes and pulling icicles out of our hair. Luckily for us, Thailand is much cheaper than Laos and our budget now stretches to icy treats and air-conditioned rooms.
After six days of fairly easy pedalling we found ourselves approaching the Laos border again, very glad that we will be back in Thailand for a whole month as we continue on our journey south and a little apprehensive about returning to a country we had been less than enamoured with the first time around. It was different. It was noticeably wealthier than the north, adults smiled more and didn’t come across in such a hostile manner as we had experienced before. We were very relieved. It is difficult to understand why we had those negative experiences the first time around but we can’t help but feel it is got a lot to do with the huge explosion in tourism in this country – seemingly poorly managed.
We headed first to the city of Pakse, which we liked mainly because it felt like a real city rather than just a place for tourists, before heading off down the east bank of the Mekong towards an area known as Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands). At numerous points on this day’s cycle we came across groups of women sitting by the side of the road. As we approached they would stand up, start yelling “Falang, Falang!”, and then thrust 3 foot, live, trussed up lizards at us as we cycled past them. It was a bizarre experience (and we were too shocked to take photos). We later found out that they were probably selling them as food.
We eventually made our way down a pot-holed track to the banks of the river as the sun started to lower in the sky. There were plenty of boats and it was not long before we found someone to ferry us over to Don Khong, one of the larger of the Four Thousand Islands. Manhandling our fully loaded bikes onto and off the wobbly longtail boat was a somewhat nerve-wracking experience and I did wonder at one point whether we were going to lose half our possessions to the murky depths of the Mekong. But we didn’t and it all added to the excitement of the adventure. I have to point out that there is a brand new, perfectly good bridge to the island but that would have added about 7km on top of the 130km we had already cycled – something that neither of us were keen to do at that stage of the day. That evening we sat out next to the river, watching the fishermen in their pirogues throwing out their weighted nets and lightening storms dancing across the sky in the distance.
The next morning we were up early ready for some island hopping, Mekong style. We made our way down the length of Don Khong, the only island to have proper roads, stopping for a long chat with another cyclist, Robert Miller who had also come from the UK but had flown from Turkey to India before continuing overland from there on his way to an end-point of Hong Kong. We parted in opposite directions as he headed for the bridge to the mainland and we continued on to the end of the island where we found a boat to take us to the next island. This was a far more practical roll-on-roll-off wooden raft and we were joined by a couple of motorcycles and their riders as well as an apprentice monk in his bright orange robes. We later heard some funny stories about foreigners driving motorbikes or bikes onto these rafts and straight off the other side into the water – our decision to dismount and walk on was the correct one then!
Don Som was an absolute bucolic paradise. There are no roads; only sandy tracks frequented by the odd bicycle or motorbike. The interior is a patchwork of parched grass areas being grazed by cows which will be planted with rice once the rainy season starts in earnest. Wooden houses on stilts line the tracks around the exterior of the island, shaded by huge palm trees and bamboo fronds. Children, chickens, kittens, ducks, goats all roam freely while buffalo wallow in muddy ponds or directly in the river itself. This island has been designated a tourism free zone and perhaps this is why it seemed so peaceful. It was a delightful 20km ride with friendly islanders giving us plenty of cheerful smiles and occasionally pointing us back on track when we took a wrong turn amidst the maze of paths.
As we neared the end of the island closest to Don Det, the most touristy of all the islands, we started to see a huge amount of litter and our hearts sank as we imagined what this next island might be like. Luckily, apart from the main village area where we encountered hordes of backpackers, restaurants advertising “happy” pizzas and rampant development of guesthouse upon guesthouse, Don Det was a pretty sleepy place. We spent a couple of days staying at the excellent Mama Leuah bungalows whilst exploring some of the remnants of French colonialism. They spent a long time trying to find a way through the maze of islands and rapids by steamer boat before concluding it was impossible and building a railway and a bridge to connect a couple of the islands to enable goods to be transported further upriver. We can confirm that the bridge is now a very nice spot to watch the sunset over the Cambodian hills whilst sipping on a cold Beer Lao.
On the morning we were due to return to the mainland, there was a torrential downpour. It wasn’t looking like it was going to abate anytime soon so we set off through the mud, puddles and sand for the boat departure point (the previously lovely tracks had already turned into a treacherous, slippery mess). By the end of the 2km ride we were already soaked through and as we joined the other travellers waiting for the boat, there were lots of bemused looks at our bedraggled appearance. Another episode of hauling our bikes around and balancing them precariously ensued, this time with an audience. It was a relief to finally be deposited on (not so) dry land and not to be reliant on anyone else. Whilst our fellow boat passengers traipsed off to tourist buses bound north to Pakse and beyond or south to Cambodia, we had a leisurely second breakfast of steamed pork buns, sticky rice and jackfruit.
And still it rained. We powered on, barely able to see through the downpour, our fingers becoming wrinkled from the wet and for the first time in a while we were actually feeling a little bit chilly (amazing). Just before the border post, the rain finally petered out and we prepared for what we knew was going to be a difficult crossing. From stories we had heard from other travellers we already knew that this was a notoriously corrupt border crossing. Seeing an Audi R8 parked at one of the border buildings did not help to persuade us otherwise. As we approached the window to be stamped out of Laos, we could see three other travellers having an in depth conversation with one of the officials behind the counter. I handed our passports in and smiled at the lady who took them from me. She wrote down our details into a huge book and the second official stamped our passports with an exit stamp. I was just leaning in to take them back when the third official said something and they were moved back out of my reach. The three guys in front of us had run out of time, they were being forced to hurry up by their bus driver. Angrily and reluctantly they forked out $2 each for the pleasure of getting their passports back.
Then it was our turn, “you pay for the stamp”, said the third official. He was a plump faced man with weasely eyes and a round belly, his white vest protruding through where the buttons on his shirt were being strained. There was no way we wanted to pay this odious man any sort of bribe. Steven went and sat down with the bikes as he knew how annoyed he would get with the situation. I flat out refused to pay and the man put our passports in a drawer and then sat avoiding eye contact with me and making comments which made the other officials smirk and snigger. I was so angry and wanted to reach through the window and punch him in the face but instead I kept talking about how this was corruption, we had not paid at any other Laotian border, the British embassy said we didn’t have to pay, it was illegal for him to just take our passports etc. etc. while he studiously ignored me. Eventually I went back to Steven. We had to decide what to do, we didn’t want to give in but nor did we want to be in a stand off at this remote border crossing forever. Steven got up and loudly started to pretend to phone the British Embassy. At the same time, a fresh bus-load of tourists drew up. The official realised that this new group of people were probably worth more money to him than we were and they would probably be easier prey if we were safely out of the way. He tapped on the window with our passports and I took them without a word. We were so elated that we had made a stand and won – fighting corruption $4 at a time!
Unfortunately, we had used up all of our indignant rage and energy at the Laotian border so when it came to the “medical examination” at the Cambodian border where we had to pay $1 each for the pleasure of filling in our own form we gave in without a fight. At least we were highly entertained by the electronic thermometer gun which indicated Steven had a temperature of 34 degrees Celcius – which I’m sure would make him in a severe state of hypothermia but the medical officials didn’t bat an eyelid. They became a bit annoyed when Steven started testing the gun at different ranges from his body and sure enough the temperature varied wildly.
Then it was on to the visa shed, where we paid $35 each for a 30-day visa. After we paid, we were both hit by a growing suspicion that the cost was meant to be $30 (later confirmed as correct) but it was already too late. As we cycled off into the Cambodian countryside, we were intensely annoyed with ourselves for not being more aware and really hoped that this would not be an indication of what was in store for us in the rest of the country.