3000km in Asia on a scooter
In 2011, we decided we were going back to Vietnam and take a trip to Laos and Cambodia as I wanted to show Thy the countries I visited before I met her, and this is my diary from the trip.
Our trip to Vietnam was eventful, as we left Heathrow 45 minutes late and took off to New Deli on Jet Airlines for the first time as we normally fly Etihad or Emirates, but we wanted to save money and as you will read it was a mistake. Our first meal on Jet Airlines came about 3 hours into the flight which comprised of some unrecognizable spicy dish with rice which dripped everywhere, and a small dry cake, and to finished off there was a little bag labelled “After Mint”, and mint it was not, upon pouring the contents into my mouth I discovered was some disgusting aniseed flavoured concoction that my westernised tastes had not encountered before or was even prepared for as I rushed for the water to try and rig my mouth of this foul tasting mess that had now occupied every square inch of my taste buds.
After the first meal I would normally take a sleeping pill to make the trip go faster, but by time they cleared the meal away we were already nearly 4 hours in to the flight and there was no point as the next meal would be in just 3 hours. As you know sitting in a chair during a flight is uncomfortable and tedious especially when you have seen most of the movies, and you can’t really sleep however after 3 hours in the chair we were served another disgusting meal comprising of pot desert rice and another cake along with the customary mixed fruit and a cup of tea, you have to understand that I normally quite like aeroplane food as on Etihad and Emirates the meals are very nice, but I suppose you get what you pay for!, a couple of hours later and we arrived late in New Deli, being late and the extremely slow disembark was followed by what seemed a 2-mile hike to the next plane which started to concern me that we would not make our connecting flights.
It was a good job they were holding our next flight as we had to que with about another 6 flights of people for 30 mins while they single file, search us and our hand luggage yet again. The women were singled out into a small tent for a rub down by one of the female security personnel while the men got the same treatment but without the tent. The funniest part of this charade was that the people whose flights were not being held and were late side stepped the que and security checks completely, therefore making a mockery of the whole security apparatus. I still do not understand why they have to do a full security rub down and bag search again after going through it a Heathrow which is one of the securest airports in the world, and being as we have not got off the flight between there and India how do they think I am going to get a bomb or gun and if I had such things why did I not blow up the previous flight?, but hey this India right!
So now we are two hours late getting onto our connecting flight but we are in the air again finally, and after another couple of crap meals and an even worse movie we land in Bangkok.
Bangkok airport is a nice new structure with exposed metal framework and struts strengthened with bonded cable all back lit by nice blue lights which in my opinion truly shows the structural engineering as a work of art.
We had pre-booked a flight from Bangkok directly to Vietnam on Asia Airlines rather than getting a straight through to Vietnam, as it saved us about one hundred and fifty quid each. However, our flight time was not until 6:45 the next morning and because of all the delays we could not check our big bags in when we arrived as we expected because the check in desk had closed, leaving us to have to spend the night guarding our luggage rather than a night in Bangkok as planned.
At last at 4am the check in desk open and we thought that we could finally get ready for our flight, however our flight had been cancelled due to low take up of tickets and we had to wait another 4 hours until the next one at 9:40am. But the lady behind the desk did give us a free 100 Thai Bart voucher for breakfast, so Thy and I went and got two scoops of ice cream each which used up the vouchers. Eventually we got our connecting flight and were on our way to Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam.
From my many trips to Vietnam I remembered that the arrival procedure was a bit tense as the foreigners and Vietnamese being separated and jumped up security personnel being a bit difficult with foreigners and in particular the overseas Vietnamese. But this time it was a breeze and both Thy and I sailed through customs in the same Que with no dirty looks and stupid questions or sending you back to edit the forms to their liking.
Upon leaving the airport we were surprised to see there were no Honda Om drivers only loads of Taxis who were quoting us between $10 and $15 for the 10-minute ride to Thys sisters house in the centre of town. Eventually we got one of them to put us on the meter which came to $7.00.
Thys family were so surprised to see us as we had not announced that we were coming and after loads of very welcoming hugs and kisses they proceeded to hammer the mobiles announcing to the whole the family that we had arrived.
After spending the afternoon with Thys dad and one of her sisters Thuy we took our bags up-to Binh Thanh district to stay with another sister Lien and her family Hop (husband) Bo (Son) and Becky (daughter). Then it was another free-for-all as Na (niece) and Thai (brother) turned up and they were all jabbering away in Vietnamese, and god they could talk.
A while later I suggested we went for Pho which is the Jewel in Vietnam in my mind and my favourite place to get Pho is owned by one of my friends. Before we left the family started phoning around to gather the ten or so family members who all turned up within a few minutes and then off we go to my friend’s restaurant on a half a dozen motorcycles. The soup was as I remembered it, amazing, deep and rich in flavour, unfortunately though my friend was out and I had to visit her the next day, but 10 people sitting down for dinner, and all for less than ten pounds, can’t be bad.
Thai suggested that we went to his house for a party of beer and more food, the party went on until 1:00am but everyone did not care about the time as they were pleased to see us and they had a lot of catching up to do. Me, I was so tired as I hadn’t slept for a couple of days and I still had to ride across town on our borrowed motorcycle before I could sleep, however it was not too far and the streets are almost empty at that time of night and it was joy riding home in the cool night air in just shorts and a skimpy top.
I was not impressed with my bed as I settled down for the night because it was damn hard, yes it was a mattress but it may as well have been the floor because the Vietnamese have a lot to learn about comfort, one bonus though was the air conditioning and that almost made up for sleeping on the hard foam mattress. I think not sleeping for that long a period did me in as at about 4am I had a stonking migraine, pain like I never believed I could have, I was truly ill, so I popped 3 500mg Nurofen and laid there desperately trying so get settled while I waited for the pills to kick in. After a while I must have finally got off as I woke up with an aching body from the lack of a sprung mattress at about 1:00pm the next day.
The next day I was busy again as I had arranged to set up Thys fathers internet, he is 93 and for him to have the internet in his room made all the difference, I had brought a wi-fi hub and laptop card with me and I spent a few hours trying to get it set up , but I could not get into the house network as no-one knew the password to the hub. But I eventually just went and brought 20 meters of cable and hard wired his laptop down two flights of stairs into the existing hub. I also set him up with hide my arse dot com so he could circumvent the great firewall of Vietnam and get Facebook and the BBC in Vietnamese as they are both banned at that time.
The next day we went looking for our own motorcycle as the one we borrowed from Thys brother Thai was knackered, the front brake had been disabled as in Vietnam some think it makes the bike skid when they apply the brakes, it’s not that they grab it full on and lock the front wheel oh no, it’s the brakes fault, so in the Vietnamese mind it’s better to disable it rather than to apply it gently.
All over Vietnam I see them disabling brakes and rotating their rear-view mirrors so they point inward to prevent them from clipping another bike as they pass too close, again it’s the mirrors fault not the rider. Even worse is that the government has passed a law requiring everyone to wear a crash helmet, but again they need not have bothered as I see people riding down the street in builders hats painted silver, or helmets consisting of nothing more than a plastic shell, no polystyrene insert or foam lining, they are being stupid in my opinion, especially when you see a mother and father loosely complying with the law and two children on the same motorcycle with no helmet or protection of any kind.
(not relevant photo but sums up the Vietnamese and their bikes)
We eventually found a Korean motorcycle for 3,000,000vnd (pictured above) which is £93, it’s not in too bad a condition and at least have transport. The last two visits we brought Honda's at about 200 quid each, as they were in great condition and real workhorse however when we leave Vietnam, we give them to Thys brother Thai.
I smartened our Motorcycle (Daisy 2) up for a few quid, by giving her a good polish and new stickers for the side. In preparation for our bike tour of Laos and Cambodia I had a rear rack made by a complete idiot who bodge it while I watched. I purchased a second-hand rack from a different motorcycle as they did not do one for ours and this guy said he could make it fit and to be honest if he had followed my instructions and made just 3 cuts and a moved a couple of fittings it would have taken him about 45 minutes. But no, this guy would not accept my simple changes as I am just a daft foreign girl, instead he cut it and then welded it back where he just cut it, he cut a gap in one of the bars then had to bridge the gap with half an old bolt. And rather than move the fittings he welded two nuts on the bike and then had to grind the plastic covers so they could go back on. After 4 hours just at the end of the job his son came back and told him off saying he should have done it the same way as I was telling him to do all the way through. So, the moral of the story is, no matter where you go there are Cowboys.
Finally, we got out of Saigon, and were on our travels. We had to wait for Tet Vietnamese new year. it was stupid as far as I was concerned but the family thinks it would bring bad luck on the family if we left before Tet. Vietnam appears to be obsessed with Lucky, they have Lucky Yellow and red, they have Lucky trees, money numbers and everything else.
(Virtually everything in the house is to bring them luck in the next 12 months, as left)
Whereas we have different lucky numbers , they all have the same numbers 8 and 9 you would not believe the crap they buy because its deemed as lucky. Anyhow we had to move out the day before Tet (1st Feb) and move into Thys other sisters, then I had to be the first one to step through the door to wish them happy new year, as a foreigner going through the door first is a big lucky power up in the game of lucky. If we had left directly for out travels from the house we were staying at, that would have been Game over and back to level one.
Anyhow after that pa-larva we set off on our first 350km leg of a our trip to Da Lat, which is a beautiful city set high in the mountainous highlands of Vietnam, And it was damn cold there just like December at home but without the snow. We stopped for two nights and moved on as there was bugger all to see and do, because it was still Tet. We decided to take the mountain path across the top which should have cut two hours off our journey but some twonk along the way gave us the wrong directions and sent us back to the DL27 which was the highway I was trying to avoid. This highway is the main drag linking two major city's Da Lat and Buon Me Thuot. But it’s a dog of a road.
The surface is intermittent with some nice stretches and some really bad pot hole (craters) stretches, the longest being 20k of bad road. All that banging about on the roads and that bodge of a rack fell off, ripping the mounts off the bike, leaving us to have to carry our bags on our back until we fortunately found a great welder who welded the rack directly to the chassis of the bike.
But If the road is not bad enough the buses and cars don't give too hoots about driving on the wrong side of the road, head on, forcing you almost off the road.
Despite seeing a crash with a motorcyclist smeared on the road (dead body just out of shot to the left) we made the 450km to, Buon Me Thuot through some stunning scenery.
While were still on Vietnam roads I think this sign sort of sums up the problem, the top reads "Speed limits for cars, buses, trucks and motorcycles" So we have the heavy trucks and buses with more than 50 seats going at 80km per hour with the smaller trucks and buses going at 70km while minivans and light trucks and motorbikes going at 60km with the smaller motorcycles and cars going at 30km all on a single lane road, so it’s not surprising its accidents waiting to happen.
After Buon Ma Thuot, we headed for the border crossing into Laos near Po Y, which is a dog of a one street town, and even though we made it to the border just before sundown we decide stay in the only hotel in Po Y so we could get an early start the next day.
We were worried about trying to get the bike into Laos so we swapped seats to make it look like i was a fat tourist on the back being given a guided tour. We sailed through the two-man border without any hassle, even when I did not have the required two passport photo's it was no problem.
This Laos border crossing is in the "Dong Amphan National Bio-Diversity Conservation Area" which is a long title for awesome mountain views and great scenery. But conservation means no houses, no hill tribes, nothing, nothing but windy mountain roads for 120km so if our trusty bike had failed there we would have been in deep trouble. As the roads are empty, it’s a pleasure to drive here, banking round the steep mountain roads is awesome without fear of meeting a buss on the wrong side of the road.
However, after a few hours we made it to some very basic civilisation and it was almost as if the bike knew it had to get there, as no sooner than the first few shacks, off popped the chain and we came to a grinding halt. I had a couple of bike spanners with me, and in the baking sun I put it back on and we were off again, however the bike had other ideas. Just out of this village on the first steep incline, the chain was off again.
This was a chance for me to use one of my Lucky power-ups that I earned in Vietnam and we rolled down the hill to a Motorcycle repair man, who was out. However, His son (left below) was in, and in his haste to help us he proceeded to use a crow bar to dislodge the chain and, in the process, bent it. I was just happy that someone was there to help us. He kept laughing at our lack of Laos, and his English comprised of "where you go" and "hello", but we all had a laugh and muddled through.
His dad arrived and after some gesturing of pointing at the chain and then at the street, followed by pointing at his shop and back at the chain, they got what I was trying to say and sorted us out with a new chain. Back on the road again and on to Attapeu which is about 230km from the border, at last some real buildings and a hotel with a restaurant, it was now about 4pm and we had been on the road all day, so we decided to stop the night and feed our hungry faces as we had only had a couple of biscuits since our 6:30am start at Po Y.
We managed to make it to Pakse in Laos, but as we were getting our bearings, I ran a red light, and heard the police whistle blow, so we pulled over to their little cabin by the traffic lights and started to make out we were lost, by asking them directions to a random hotel, but they were not that easily fooled, so after they gave us the directions one of them produced a piece of paper with all the traffic violations hand written, with the appropriate fine below it in English and it was 70,000 kip ($7.00), just like Vietnam everything can be discounted so after a bout of pronunciation and gestures the three police men laughed and the fine dropped to 50,000 kip ($5.00), so a three quid fine and no points, win, win.
We went to the cheapest guest house listed in the lonely planet and got a room with a fan, however in the middle of the night we woke to a screeching sound and the smell of burning Electrics, only to find our ceiling fan was burning out. I immediately turning it off and we told the night staff who did not care and neither did the owners the next morning. We left that hotel and moved into another on the main street which was where we stayed a few days while we recovered from our journey.
After doing the sights we made our way south towards Cambodia avoiding the tourist trail, taking in Champasak and Don Kong the largest of the so called 4000 islands. We got the bike through the border again with no problems and after about another 100km we arrived in Stung Treng and checked into Mr Ts, which was the same hotel I stayed at over 7 years ago on my first trip to Cambodia. We met a nice group of travellers there, staying longer than we had planned chilling out with Tom, Simon and Evan.
We attempted to leave and make our way to Siem Reip but we got sent in a big circle and ended up back where we started to we had another night in Stung Treng. The next day we left again to cut across the top of Cambodia cutting nearly 400km off the trip. But we again got bad directions and after 150km ended up on the edge of Laos, and the bike was getting low on petrol so we pulled into a Hill tribe village hoping to get some more.
After filling Daisy up, Thy did her magic and asked for directions in Vietnamese, as there was a someone who spoke Vietnamese in the village. However, the guy who knew the way only spoke Khmer, so we had one guy making a map speaking in Khmer, which was being translated into Vietnamese and Thy was translating that into English so I could follow along. Needless to say, it was not accurate information but it was better than nothing. It turns out that if daisy had not got low on petrol we would have gone straight into the area where Laos and Thailand are shooting at each other and have killed 16 people so far. Was that another lucky power-up gone or was that just chance?
After a nice u-turn and going back 60km we ended up on the right road, if you could call it that, as it was nothing more than a dirt track that was riddled with pot holes, and sand pits that brought daisy to a dead stop, the bridges were down and we would have to take a detour through the Jungle. This road was like riding Motocross for about 100k, passing through small villages with children waving and funny looks from the adults. I think there only a few white people had been there before and although the path was a struggle we both could not have wished for a better trip as it took us into places that neither of us had dreamed of and we got to see the real Cambodia through burning fields and genuine hill tribes.
After about 6 hours of the hardest driving of my life we eventually came to a reasonable road and made our way to Tbaeng Meanchey where we were finally able to get something to eat. While we were eating some grilled beef, we got directions to Siem Reip and the man told us it was only 40km away so we decided to carry on and see if we can make it by night fall. But again, this was another misdirection, as night fall came and we were now on pitch black roads with just our little headlight to light up the road ahead which had random buffalo and tractors with no lights.
We pushed on at a steady 20km per hour, hoping that it was not too far, but after another hour I noticed the words “Guest house” as we passed a house on the side of the road, so we decided to stop for the night, and we were damn glad we did as it was another 140km to Siem Reip and the road was going to get bad again.
Siem Reip and the children of Ankor
By the way “Siem Reip and the temples of Ankor”, sounds like an Indiana Jones title, if I ever heard one. Anyhow we stayed in the guest house with a lovely Khmer landlady and her husband managed to get an early night as they could not speak a word of English and after I had done my card tricks, origami and other Magic there was nothing to do. We got an early start and headed off to Siem Reip. This time it was like the roads in Vietnam with large pot holes, and dusty dirt roads. We did get to see a Khmer wedding along the way, which reminded me of our hand fasting as the bride and groom walked slowly greeting every guest as they walked down the aisle.
Siem Reip has changed in the seven years since my last visit, its turned from a small town with a few guest houses into a Ko San Road type place, with loads of hotels and guest houses, markets souvenir shops and loads of bars, so many bars they have a road called pub street which is where the tourists get hammered on Redbull and vodka buckets while dancing till the early hours in clubs with names like Ankor What?. The funny thing about all this, is that I don’t know if the Cambodians are taking the piss out of the pissed-up tourists, but the buckets they are drinking from are sold as children’s poties in Vietnam, say no more...
Our first night we stayed in a not so nice guest house, but the next day we met Kristian and Maria who we had spent an evening with in Stung Treng, they were staying in a nice hotel with a pool for just $10 a night so it was a simple decision to change and enjoy the delights of the pool.
The next day we went to see the temples of Ankor and again it has changed so much, before it was just you, the trees and the stone, but now there are wooden walkways and posts with arrows showing you the guided route, also before there was loads of trees growing over the temples and now they have mostly been removed. I know it’s to preserve and protect the site, but I am glad I did it years ago as it detracts from the age and wonder of the place.
We also visited an orphanage and spent some time with the kids, who gave a us three lovely traditional dances in the afternoon, there were 36 children at this place and the kids sleep three to a bed with the girls in one room and the boys in another which is a straw and wood shack off the side of the court yard which is their home.
After spending a few days by the pool, we took daisy on the bus to Phnom Pen, to visit s21 and the killing fields. But that is another story…..