Asia

Siem Reap – Dodgy tuk-tuks and temples

This is a conversation I had in Siem Reap after a long commute:

“Wrong hotel mate”

“This is the one I was told to bring you to”

“No, we definitely said the Mandalay Inn”

“Well, we are here now, do you want to look at the rooms here anyway?”

“No, I want to go to the Mandalay Inn…like we agreed”

“Just look at the rooms”

“No” *grabbing bags*

“Do you have reservation at Mandalay Inn?”

“No”

“The rooms here are nice”

“No”

(Jette) “Can you just take us to the Mandalay Inn please?”

“Mandalay Inn is much further away, please pay extra”

“No, we agreed on $4 to the Mandalay Inn”

“I was not told this, you need to pay more”

“How about, we walk to the Mandalay then, you miss out on money”

*Both tuk-tuk man and I grab Jette’s bag*

“No, just look at the rooms here sir”

“I want to go to the Mandalay Inn, that is what we agreed on, any confusion is your problem not mine! Make this happen”

(Jette) “Just take us to the Mandalay Inn, and we will pay you $4 as agreed, why did you not take us there to begin with?”

“Customers I take to the Mandalay Inn are never happy with it, this place is better”

(Jette) “So you agree that you were told to go to the Mandalay Inn”

“Ummm, yes, but it is not good”

(Me) “We want to go there, NOW please”

“This hotel has a pool”

“Mandalay Inn, as agreed”

“Mandalay Inn is so far out of the tourist centre though sir, you will need to pay more”

“$4 to take us to the Mandalay Inn, as agreed” “$5”

(Jette) “How is this a discussion?, we agreed on $4 to the Mandalay Inn, that is what we want”

“But I do not get work from the Mandalay Inn, can you give me work tomorrow and I’ll take you there” (Me) “$4 to take us to the Mandalay Inn, as agreed” “Can you give me work tomorrow?”

(Jette) “It is too bad for you as before you took us to the wrong hotel we were saying that you seem nice and that we might hire you for two days exploring Angkor Wat”

*Sad tuk-tuk man* “Oh”

(Me) “Pays to be honest champ”

(Me) *spotting transfer assistant* “There is your manager, I’ll ask him”

(To transfer assistant who for some reason arrived at this hotel) “We have been taken to the wrong hotel”

“Oh, sorry sir, I forgot to tell you, all hotels but this one close after midnight”

“Bullshit” *Walk back to tuk-tuk man* “Ok, we did not get what we agreed on, we are not going to pay, we will walk”

*making to leave* *sigh* “Ok sir, I’ll take you to the Mandalay Inn”

*Paying tuk-tuk man $4 at Mandalay Inn, which is quite open, close to the centre and wonderful*

That is close to the conversation we had at 1:30am in Siem Reap after eighteen hours on a bus. Tuk-tuk drivers get a kickback for recommending tourists to particular hotels, they get quite aggressive in their recommendations.  I will not bore you with details of our commute. In short we had a 6am start in southern Laos, a dodgy border crossing, three bodged bus changes, two bags of chips, a Japanese student sleeping on my shoulder, annoying sunburnt British man with the gay wheeled suitcase and eighteen hours sitting before we were arguing with this tuk-tuk driver in Siem Reap. Tempers were strained. Notwithstanding, the following day we enjoyed a lovely sleep in, followed by a slow wander through town.

Every step is punctuated by a question; “Tuk-tuk” “Massage?” or “Mariguaaan?” I even once got offered; “Opium?” with which I was particularly pleased. We drifted into the big Angkor National Museum where we set about cooling off in the air conditioned halls while learning all about the history of this amazing area. Full of new information we went in search of the Sunrise Childrens Village.

This is an orphanage where I was planning to donate half of my Baby Teresa clothes. Baby Teresa is a very cool charity set up by my friend Kirsty Dunphey. It is an online baby clothes store where for every item of clothing sold, one is donated. Donations are ferried around the world by willing volunteers on holiday. I have already made a donation while in Ecuador and have another drop off for Kathmandu later in the month. The security guard took down our details at the gate and checked our identification. Obviously they cannot let just anyone wander around the grounds amongst the kids.

The Sunrise Orphanage was set up by an Australian lady by the name of Geraldine Cox. Following a visit to Cambodia Geraldine, through her circle of friends, organised regular monthly care packages to be sent to children in Cambodia. She then applied for a grant through her employer the Chase Manhattan Bank who supported the orphanage project with $20,000 annually over five years. Now the orphanage is a well established not for profit organisation and receives donations from all over Australia.

The group has expanded and now have a second orphanage in Phnom Penh. The facility in Siem Reap cares for over sixty children providing housing, schooling, consistency and most importantly safety and love in its large enclosed grounds. They mainly care for school aged children but have an active program which sends social workers to out lying villages to give education, support and care packages to young mothers. This is where the Baby Teresa clothes are destined. Despite not being the poorest orphanage, due to its strong connections with local villages and other orphanages I figured that the donation will get to where it is most needed. A worker gave us a tour of the orphanage and told many desperately sad tales about the children milling around our legs. Their newest resident, a tiny four year old boy with old eyes, was originally living with his mother after his father left. His mother worked as a prostitute and was an alcoholic. His mother would regularly bash him to within inches of his life. He ran away from home one year ago and was taken in by a kindly old monk. The monk was too old to look after the boy properly so he was taken to the orphanage a week ago and is starting a new life.

I was amazed at the resilience of these kids. Despite his sad eyes and beaten dog look, the boy showed great interest in my fake grass thongs and kept on insisting I help him with his drawing while the worker spoke to us. Due to strict regulations on photographing the kids I was not allowed to take any photographs with the children. We spoke with the worker for a while, gave him the baby clothes, which he assured us will be very gratefully received and went to meet our pre-arranged tuk-tuk man. We first met our tuk-tuk man on the way to the orphanage by chance.

We initially ignored the call of “Tuk-tuk” but a few steps later we both stopped and simultaneously said “He seems nice” We were right, our man (whose name I have forgotten, let’s call him Phirun) had bought his tuk-tuk on a loan agreement only hours before and was just starting his career. Phirun has a wife and a new born baby to support and had just finished painting his new wheels when we walked past. He quoted us a very reasonable fee of $5 to go to Angkor Wat for sunset. Phirun was sat excitedly in his new tuk-tuk outside our hotel waiting for us when we arrived.

We jumped in and set off to see a sun setting over Angkor Wat.

Irrawaddy Dolphins and breast milk

Waiting for a Jumbo to take us to the corner of Routes 8 and 13. A bus stops and we change plans, it is good to stay flexible when traveling. On the bus we meet Shitole, I am not making his name up. Shitole is a young student who is keen to practise his English. I giggle my way through a stilted conversation where he asks us how many children we have and when we got married. I do not try to explain that, despite being the grand age of thirty-three, neither Jette nor I have kids (fingers crossed!) and that we are not in fact married. Shitole gets the driver to drop us at the corner and bids us farewell. The first hour of our commute worked out quite nicely. Claudia has decided to join us as far as Pakse, as she would be arriving in the nighttime she wanted company and we gladly let her tag along.

Despite our best information no busses pass us on the way south so we give up and flag down a Jumbo headed for Tha Khaek. In Tha Khaek we switch to a motorbike tuk-tuk which takes us to the bus depot. We are glad to find a bus leaving for Pakse in ten minutes. Fresh baguettes are hastily filled with sardines from a rusty, dirty tin and inhaled along with a can of coke before we walk to the bus.

Which is impossibly crowded.

Small plastic stools have been set all the way down the aisle for extra seating, people crowd in the aisle, trying to find room for legs, bodies and luggage. The heat inside the bus is beyond description. We stand in the aisle trying to find room for the eight hour ride and just give up. We fight our way off the bus and stand in the full sun, which feels cool after the bus’s interior. Looking at the bus I see a railway car crowded with Jews on their way to the gas chamber, not a transport option. Three Italians sit on hard won plastic chairs in the bus and ready themselves to brave the journey. Not long after this crowded bus leaves another one takes its place. This one is only going as far as Savannakhet, but will see us in the right direction and is far less crowded, however shabby and stinky it is.

About three hours later we jump off in Savannakhet and are greeted by three very tired looking Italians who have beaten us by a mere ten minutes. Their eyes twitch when I tell them about the second bus. Another baguette later we find a bus which is headed for Pakse. This bus stops every few metres along the journey and Jette, Claudia and I are all thoroughly sick of bus life when 11:30pm and Pakse rolls around. A motorbike with a side car takes us to the nearest open hotel where we collapse.

I wake to hear the shower. It feels like 5am but is really 9:30am. We find breakfast, and the Italians, who are eating slowly and thoughtfully. Their crowded bus arrived in Pakse at 2am after requiring some roadside repairs and unloading. This is where we stop complaining about our relatively painless commute. After breakfast Jette and I farewell Claudia and set out for another, relatively short commute.

On the Jumbo bus trip to Ban Naka Sang I develop a fondness for Sudoku and narrowly miss being hit by flying breast milk. A young mother is feeding her very new baby when a violent bump separates baby and nipple (I could not help but notice it was an extremely long nipple straight from the cover of National Geographic). I look up from my Sudoku at the bump to see a stream of breast milk spraying nearby commuters like a wayward fire hose, a very unimpressed baby and an embarrassed mother. I look back down to my Sudoku quickly and avoid any eye contact with Jette as this would start racks of giggling. Despite no eye contact I can hear her thoughts “don’t look at Ben, don’t look at Ben” Thankfully the bus ride finishes soon afterwards.

We jump onto a boat which takes us directly to Don Khon Island where we find a room and stop.

It is really nice to just stop.

Our room sits on the banks of the Mekong River near the end of its four-thousand, nine hundred and nine kilometre journey. The river is big, fast and rich brown. It discharges four hundred and seventy-five cubic kilometres, kilometres!, of water annually. That is two times the length of Tasmania-ish cubed, full of brown, muddy water. Try to picture this number if you can, it is a figure which is truly hard to comprehend.

We don’t strain ourselves on the island, a lazy morning is followed by a short walk to a beach where an unpainted canoe takes us to find the extremely rare Irrawaddy Dolphin. A close relative of the Irrawaddy Dolphin, the Yangtze Dolphin was recently declared extinct. This marks the first large vertebrae forced to extinction by humans in fifty years and only the fourth time since 1500 that a complete branch has fallen from the evolutionary tree.

The Irrawaddy Dolphin is sadly following its cousin’s fate with less than one hundred in existence on the entire planet, all of them living in the Mekong, forty where we are going. In the 1950’s there were thousands of these snub nosed dolphins right along the Mekong’s length. Future plans for more dams, levees and barrages will put impossible strain on this species.

This sharp decline is not due to persecution or hunting but unskilled fishing. Long, un-baited lines bristling with hooks are dragged up and down the river snagging fish, branches and dolphins, nets are cast carelessly. In the dry season greedy fishermen drop dynamite into deep pools to stun and catch fish. These pools are where the Irrawaddy Dolphins stay to wait for rain.

Our canoe sneaks us over the border into Cambodia where a viewing platform sits on the bank overlooking a deep pool. We spot one fin, then another. The irrawaddy dolphins look like the goofy cousin of the bottle nosed dolphin. The cousin which you have to be nice to despite his irritating laugh. Despite their plight they wear a perpetual grin but are extremely shy, they only briefly pop up for air before diving again into the brown waters. I manage a few photos but cannot do the moment justice. I struggle to capture them on their brief sojourns to the surface. The dolphins rise so rarely for air that I start to think it would be convenient if one had asthma, or smoked. No such luck. We sit in the heat and enjoy seeing this species, one which most likely will be extinct during our lifetime. I mentally review my bucket list as we ride the canoe back to the beach.

-Bottle Nosed Dolphin – tick

-Pink Amazon Dolphin – tick

-Irrawaddy Dolphin – tick

-own a ride on lawn mower – not yet

-eat moose meat – not yet

-skydive in a tuxedo – not yet

-Climb a mountain, paraglide from summit – not yet

There are still some jobs to be done…

Tomorrow we are waking early again and are bussing again. This time a short (15 hour) hop to Siem Reap where we have a big temple to see and I have some baby clothes to donate to an orphanage courtesy of Baby Teresa. Both should be rewarding experiences.

Kong lo caves, Laos

The valley we follow to the Kong Lo caves reads like a highlight reel of Asia. Again I am perched on a small ledge on the back of the Jumbo photographing. We pass two storey concrete buildings which stand next to woven bamboo huts standing above the rice paddies on their long legs. We pass buffalos, cows, pigs, chickens and naked children jumping off bridges into muddy streams. If you only had one day to ‘see’ Asia I would recommend you spend it hanging off the back ledge of this very Jumbo and go down this valley. The Jumbo driver drops us off in an open area of jungle where a bamboo hut sits next to a river bearing a roughly carved sign that tells us we have reached the “Boat Committee” I watch our Jumbo go hoping we have not confused our driver and that he understands we will need a return lift as well.

The Boat Committee man speaks enough English to take our 115,000 kip and give us a shared, roughly printed ticket for entry into the cave. Numerous canoes line the river bank in various states of disrepair.

One canoe is not sunk, this is the one we choose. One little Lao man in the front steers and a second little Lao man paddles from the back. I eagerly wait for the Oompa-loompa song to begin but am disappointed. We simply cross the river towards the mouth of the cave, tie up the canoe before the rapids and walk beside the river into the cave. The river flows out of the mouth of the cave, a dark hole ceaselessly vomiting brown.

Inside the cave we escape the heat, fifteen long canoes with propellor wielding four stroke Honda motors wait in silence. Being low season, our team of three are the only non-local explorers in the caves. Four local women dip square nets into the cool water at the cave mouth, they are scooping up confused fish that have survived a trip through the 7.5km long cave system.

We gingerly sit in the low lying canoe as it wobbles wildly and tries to throw us out into the black water. The driver starts the engine and takes us into the cave. A very big cave.

Just as my eyes are starting to adjust to the darkness we pull up at a sandy beach with a steep bank. We alight the canoe and walk along a walkway and I discover that the head light I have rented is not working. Our mute guide presses a button causing blue and white spotlights to bring the stalactites, which had been hiding behind shadow, into sharp focus. The curtain is raised on this frozen, silent play, the soundtrack is one of awed silence. The caves were first discovered in 1995 by non-locals and the lights installed in 1998 by ONG Energles Sans Frontiers, which is, I imagine, an engineering version of the French Medicine San Frontiers.

Huge stalactites hang down from the roof, bathed in blue light, they look like enormous cancer specimens in a jar. We wander in silent awe as the river babbles over rocks from somewhere in the pitch dark.

We walk back to the sandy beach which is completely out of place deep in a cave system, settle carefully in the canoe and set off again into the blackness. Headlights occasionally light up nearby rocks grasping at us out of the dark. In some areas the roof is up to one hundred metres high. It would take the drops of water about five whole seconds to travel from the roof of the cave to just behind my neck. The roof is so high that I get the eerie feeling that we are really outside in the canoe. Shadows on the patterned cave wall could easily be trees passing by in the night.

Every sound is sucked into the void above, even the sound of the motor does not return to us. Soon a light signals another mouth in the cave system. We burst down a rapid, water flowing freely into the unpainted wooden canoe and we blink in the light. The river is now rich brown, not oily black, the canoe burps along past lush green jungle. We stop at a rest area where a Lao man who has clearly spent too much time alone in the jungle confuses himself when he doubles the price of our water. Our guides are no longer mute but speaking gleefully rapid Lao with the scraggy bearded bushman.

Back in the canoe we retrace our path through the dark maze. I shiver involuntarily when a strong mental image pops into my mind, we have sunk the canoe and are trying to swim in the dark. I recognise the beach, the dark begins to submit to sunlight and we hear a yell. Three Lao women are on the beach with their square nets jumping up and down and waving us over. The driver of the boat turns quickly and pulls up at the beach. He puffs his little chest out and despite not being able to understand a word we know what is happening; “Hey ladies, check out my boat, I’ll rescue you” I have no idea how the three ladies were got to be there on the beach without lights with their nets but they pour onto the boat and we set off again. Water threatens to overtake the canoe as the driver shows off and revs the engine taking us quickly to the cave mouth where we started.

We finish back at the Boat Committee. We don’t talk much, our minds fail to find words to describe this labyrinth. It is a set directly out of Star Trek or Dr Who. I would never have believed that a cave could possibly be so massive, so black and so vast. This is one detour which was well worth the effort.

Tomorrow we are going to bus again, further this time, right to the bottom of Laos on our way to Cambodia. We get an early, early night in readiness for hells bus part three.

I fall asleep thinking about Gollum from the Hobbit, he would love the Kong Lo cave, all those tasty, pale, slippery fish and dark, moist corners to hide in.

Hells bus part 2


We wake at 6:00 am and wander onto the street to see two hundred orange robed Buddhist monks receiving alms, mainly sticky rice. There is a really surreal feeling to the sight, almost like the day has not woken properly and we are seeing its fading dream. Gucci clad tour groups from high end hotels line the street, they are wearing orange shawls and handing rice to the monks in a frenzy of karma trading. We do not want to intrude as they do and just stand watching from a respectful distance. I cannot get a photo of the amazing procession without unwittingly snapping one of these party crashers.

Not yet ready to face the day we crawl back under the fan and into bed to make a few more Z’s

Midday, our second brutal commute through Laos has begun. We are on a Jumbo van to the airport. Jumbo vans are awesome, they are tiny one litre Diahatsu flat bed trucks with bench seats and roofs installed. About twelve people can fit in the back, backpacks go on the roof, the sights and smells are within grasp as they putter you to your destination.

We wait in the tiny one gate airport for two hours watching pink and white toga wearing people talk with British accents to a large family of Sri Lankan tourists. The dark Sri Lankans look quite happy about the near forty degree heat. The flight has its ups and downs, that is to say we go up, then straight down. It only takes forty minutes to fly what would have been a fourteen hour bus epic, it is seventy US dollars well spent. Thankfully we land in Vientiane without mishap, despite more liquid being spotted under the plane and a very second hand looking decor inside.

An un air-conditioned taxi with a stern driver takes us through the country’s capital to the bus depot, we stop counting intricately painted Buddhist temples at seven. The French influence is even more obvious here with baguette stands displaying their wares on every corner.

With our shorts sticking to our bums and backs itching from hot packs we discover that a bus is leaving south on Route 13 in ten minutes. We find a baguette to munch and I buy Jette a can of coke, I spoil myself with another bag of Spicy Crab Lays chips. We take a deep breath and settle in our seats near the back of the bus. Despite having bussed through some of the worlds poorer nations this is easily the worst bus I have ever graced. The last four rows of seats have been removed and replaced with hessian sacks of either rice or fabric. Every available space, even the bit where you normally put your feet, is filled with these dusty sacks, the aisle, the roof, there are even two sacks dangerously close to the driver’s foot pedals.

If you speak with someone who has endured the unimaginable, lets say a five year term in a Balinese prison, they will not give you an orderly description of their experience. More likely you will get a highlight reel of the worst parts, spikes on a graph showing suffering on the ‘X” and time on the ‘Y’. I think this is how I am also best able to paint an accurate picture of our five hours inside this muggy hessian sack. In short it felt like we were reliving all the bad bits from the bible.

The bus waits in the full sun for twenty long minutes before leaving. By now sweat is dripping from the end of my nose rhythmically and Jette has finished her coke. My packet of chips has swelled in the heat fit to burst.

Half an hour into our journey we stop and two scooters levitate past the rear window and are lashed down next to the three goats who have been enjoying a cool breeze on the roof. A bag of rotten, half eaten something has been shoved into the ashtray adding a zesty tang to the muggy air. We drive off through a winding mountain pass which reveals a very unnerving fact about this bus. Not only do the brakes smell like burnt rubber but the top moves completely independently to the bottom. The weight of sacks on top of the bus makes the roof swing about four inches away from each corner. This movement sends shudders down the bus, both in the passengers and in the rusted sheet metal which covers the frame and is fast loosing its battle to keep the outside world out. A credit card sized gap where the window opens up provides our only link to sanity as a cool breeze sometimes wafts away our body odour. Someone sitting in front throws water out of their window, it is sucked into ours and covers our grimy shirts. A child is crying constantly. Heat, hot dust, dust which gets on your teeth and down the back of your throat. Dust which balls into sweaty bobbins when I run my hand up Jette’s forearm. My hairline near the neck is brown with sweaty dust.

The air inside the bus smells like a wet sneaker. The bus stops to allow the driver to fill up the steaming radiator. All the passengers disembark and run into a rubber plantation like Khmer Rouge soldiers. Jette braves the plantation for a wee stop, needing to maintain eye contact with our bags I simply go at the back of the bus. I catch a glimpse inside the engine bay, a mechanic has held this engine together with silver tape and hose clamps, what little confidence I had in our transport evaporates. We finish all of our water, which was too hot to quench a thirst anyway. My chips are finished and I feel nauseous with the diesel smell. Jette’s head is rolling on her shoulders, she bears the haunted look of an African child in a famine. The bus rumbles and squeaks onwards at a steady forty kilometres an hour.

The scenery disappears as the sun sets somewhere in the haze. I am pretty sure I just spotted a grandma on a pushbike pass us before the darkness steals all views. Now our only senses available are smell and sound, these remind us constantly that we are moving somewhat closer to our goal. The dark takes with it our confidence of finding a room for the night, we are planning to get off at the corner of Routes 13 and 8. A small town without a name or any information available. I am glad to have the DEET in case we need to sleep in a sun shelter beside a rice paddy. An indeterminable time bumbling along in the dark, tired with nerves from jumping when the chassis groans or when the driver falls onto the horn, and finally we are off the bus. We are standing at the junction wearing our very dirty packs and trying to spot a hotel, hostel or welcoming looking local. We had planned on pushing through to Ban Khoun Kam nearer Kong Lo caves but the journey of about two hundred kilometres took over five hours and has completely drained our batteries, the energiser bunny is no longer dancing or banging his cymbals.

Thankfully we find a room, at a roadside hotel with a mattress that still has its plastic cover on and a fan that gently mixes the muggy air. We wash our faces and fall into a nearby diner where a man wearing clownish makeup is dressed as a lady. He/she tries to flirt with both of us. We leave. At the only other diner open a young teen apologetically serves us noodle soup and omelet, we eat with abandon while looking over the families shoulders to absently watch a sit-com on television. A gangster is cutting off a man’s ears.

Back to the room, we lie under the fan. Prone and shirtless on the sticky-hot plastic mattress cover we see geckos outside chasing flies. They make weird frogish noises.  I get up and photograph a bug the size of your hand and jump back onto the bed. We have a plan in place to get to the cave tomorrow, sleep spirits us away before we can worry too much about tomorrow.

Our commute is not quite finished however, the morning brings a renewed vigour and enthusiasm to see this cave which we have made such a detour to explore. We catch an early Jumbo to Ban Khoun Kam. I am standing on a back ledge in the breeze as the van weaves its way along a serpentine road. The karst formations are sharp, unlike the smooth (possibly older) ones in Vietnam. Sharp spikes like grey meringue pies stick up out of the lush surrounding jungle. The scenery is surreal, like a mental patient’s painting.

Many scooters and construction vans pass us on the way. A thirteen kilometre tunnel is being dug through a mountain to speed movement through the region. I spend the whole ride on the back ledge holding on with one hand and frantically photographing the scenery with the other.

We get to a guesthouse where the guide book promises we will be met by English speaking Jimmy. Jimmy unfortunately is in Canada on work. His younger sister shows us to a room. A room with a musty, rattling air-conditioner unit fighting to abate the thirty-five degree heat. We meet our first Westerner for days. Claudia is a young German girl, she is traveling on her own as her boyfriend had to return to Germany for work. Some companies in Germany give their workers the option to take up to three months sabbatical on minimum wage, which they can pay back with a pay reduction once they return to full time work, this sounds very much like a win/win scenario.

We are served 2 very fresh baguettes for breakfast which we fill with omelet before jumping on Claudia’s prearranged Jumbo out to the cave. Our pilgrimage to the caves is almost done. It had better be worth the effort!

Hells bus part 1

grey Hells bus part 1Early morning, somehow and for the first time in our travels the bloody alarm does not go off. We frantically skip breakfast and showers, pack and race to catch the bus, which turns out to be an old 44 seater saved from a scrapyard somewhere, at least it is not packed too badly, for now.

Two hours in to our trip from Luang Nam Tha to Luang Prabang we stop at a roadside market where ladies are selling bags of live eels alongside pigs, chickens and peanuts under dusty bamboo stalls. Jette and I run off the bus to find a toilet, having no luck we wander back to the bus where the ticket boy and driver are hauling two scooters onto the roof. With the scooters tied firmly down and the locals on our bus comparing recently purchased eel bags we rattle onwards. We shake and roll through serpentine roads lined with high green grass. Breaks in this grass corridor reveal impossibly steep, impossibly green, terraced hills with small bamboo huts dotted on their slopes. I can just make out the silhouette of farmers taking well earned breaks from the heat under these shelters. Gaps in the grass corridor along bridge crossings reveal small hamlets. Bamboo huts sit on stilts where small grubby children play in the dirt with wheel-less toy trucks. Adults either slowly make handy crafts or just lie in the shade laconically. Gaps on high mountain passes reveal karst formations, which hide under their green coverings almost apologetically, poking out of rice paddies. A green carpet thrown over the flatter areas.

These are the glimpses of Laos we see through the grubby window of this smelly old dirty bus as we dodge scooters at forty kilometers an hour. I feel as though we are in a 3D cinema, being granted occasional glimpses through a smeared canvas of green. Buffalos look up in slow buffalo-like surprise as the driver toots his horn, he honks the horn at thirty second intervals.

We wind down a particularly steep section of road past rubber plantations and stop near the big palm leaf tree. I introduce two fellow Australians to the joy of spicy, crab Lays chips as we wait. Before long the heat of the bus forces us all outside to investigate the hold up. Roadworks at the bottom of the pass has caused our pause, which will last for two hours. I am playing UNO with a Frenchman, a Swede and a German lady (sounds like a good joke) when the bus rolls on again, with brakes that still smell caustic. Jette still has her nose in the guide book trying to figure out what we will do when we arrive at Luang Prabang, five dusty, bouncy hours later.

So who took her shirt off the line then mate? This was the only question which really matters. I do not care how many people stay here, who came and left yesterday or how much the laundry service washes each day. I only care about who took Jette’s favorite, quick drying shirt off the line outside our room between the time when we left for breakfast and returned from breakfast (with bellies full of omelet, great coffee and French baguette).

Jette decides to give up on her shirt so we wander off to look at temples.

grey Hells bus part 1We are in Luang Prabang, having enjoyed the magic bus ride from Luang Nam Tha we settle into a lazy morning wandering this Buddhist temple dotted town between ice water breaks and politely declining tuk-tuk rides. Templed out we have lunch at the same Italian/Franco.Italian restaurant which served such great breakfast and decide to hire a scooter for the afternoon to explore the region. I sign a form absolving all rights to a claim, we jump on a scooter and set out to the Kuang Si waterfall. A one hour ride through isolated villages, past buffalo encrusted ditches sees us at the reserve car park just as the vendors are packing up their sticky rice in palm leaf and chicken on bamboo skewers. We walk two kilometers past a bear rescue centre (they had apparently only saved one bored looking bear and need funds) to the now deserted waterfall.

Recent flooding has washed away the bridge and lower viewing platform so we sit on the upper level, drink warm scooter shaken coke and photograph the falls. Brown flood water cascades over seven levels into a confused looking pond at the bottom. Should the water be clear and the weather a little less muggy this area would truly be a shampoo commercial set. I desperately want to explode out of these waters shaking a full head of Sunsilk hair in the tropical sun. Shiny new ferns cling to the rocks as trees look to be loosing their footings on the precarious cliffs surrounding the falls. We happily snap away, then realize we are not alone. Two Aussies burst into frame and introduce themselves as Chigga and Davo. Davo is currently missing a flight from Bangkok to Sydney, Chigga seems just happy wandering. They rented motorbikes in Chang Mai and “Kind of lost track of time mate”

Chigga tells me that it is possible to climb the falls. He rips of his shirt to reveal a large, hairy beer tumor and dares me to follow suit. I pass the camera to Jette, take off my shirt and thongs and wade into the water.

Despite looking green and slick the rocks are amazingly grippy. It is possible to walk up these rocks, in ankle deep water, to the third tier. Chigga and I strike shirtless muscle poses on a ledge and are soon joined by Davo. Lounging in a jacuzzi sized pool, ten meters up a multi tiered waterfall in Laos with two fellow countrymen I again thank my travel angel for his tireless behind the scenes work. I feel like I have found the fountain of youth, that if I stayed here would not age one day, at the very least I may see a few shampoo commercials being shot. Unfortunately the other two soon bore and make to leave. We climb down to inspect the photos which Jette dutifully took as we played explorers.

I sit on the scooter with a wet bum, the one hour ride to town is colored by villagers winding up their day and the sun casting salmon tints over the rice paddies. After dropping off the scooter we arrive at the hostel to be welcomed by joyous news;

“Lady nex, door, tay your top, acci-lent, solly”

grey Hells bus part 1Reunited with her top, Jette leads me to the night market, via another Buddhist temple, to celebrate our news by buying daggy, bright, falang pants similar to mine. We eat at the Franco/Italian restaurant and retire early, ready for a brutal commute tomorrow.

We have decided to try to see the Kong Lo caves in central Laos. This network of caves is both hard to reach and spectacular.

So there was this Australian, a Frenchman, a Swede and a German playing UNO somewhere in Laos…..

Buy this book!

The Red Rucksack - Available now

This business partnership has expired.” Ben has no idea what adventures are in store when he sets out to discover what lies over that next mountain.

This week's popular posts

My favourite video

Sometime getting home is the best bit!