All posts by Vince

130km approx, and around 2.5 hours riding.

The alarm was set for 6am but we switched it off and woke up again at 7am, packed quickly and left our hotel about 8am, stopping for fuel just down the road and then heading out to Highway 7, bound for Bangkok.

Aad had already alerted us via email to the fact that motorcycles aren’t allowed on the expressways that run into and through Bangkok (on pain of a 2000 THB fine I recalled later in the day) and I thought the route I’d plotted yesterday on the GPS avoided any expressways, but this morning we quickly found ourselves breaking the rules once again, but at least we had a good ride into Bangkok!

I honestly didn’t see any signs saying that motorbikes weren’t allowed, and a highway police car that came up on us from behind with his lights flashing didn’t pull us over – I quickly realised he was escorting three large tour coaches to give them a clear run up the motorway so I dropped in behind the last coach and joined the convoy. They turned off the motorway at the Chon Buri exit, maybe halfway to Bangkok, so we picked up the pace a bit and cruised along at 120kmh for a while, the designated speed limit for cars.

We passed a motorcycle policeman parked on the side of the road and it looked like he wanted to have a chat with us as he started to pull away from his position, but I never saw him again so perhaps he changed his mind.

We came across a toll booth but we’re that accustomed to slipping through on the free motorcycles lane that in the absence of such a lane today I made my own, taking advantage of a truck rolling through the boom gate to sneak through ourselves. Someone yelled out to us from the gate booth – I’m sure it sounded like “Have a nice day” or something similar 🙂

We found another coach convoy with four buses under police escort and dropped in behind them, enjoying the slipstreaming as we clocked up 100km from Pattaya, but then another toll booth appeared and we took the opportunity to come off the motorway at this point rather than continue to press our luck. Two highway police officers with fluro vests were waiting at the boom gate and I thought we’d be well and truly busted but they just waved us through with a smile! “Great” I thought, as Aad and Mike had been forced to turn around and ride back down the motorway into the oncoming traffic when they got stopped a few days ago.

On the urban roads with about 26km to go we quickly got bogged down with stop-start traffic, full of cars and trucks and tuk-tuks and scooters. At times we’d have a little break and could scoot ahead, and at times we squeezed quite neatly through the gaps between the cars, but the closer we got to Bangkok the narrower the gaps and the less confident I was of squeezing through, so often we just sat and sweltered in the morning heat, watching the scooters and motorbikes swarm all around the cars. It took us about 70 minutes to cover the 26km.

Our first stop today was the Olympus camera office. Yesterday we’d booked a hotel within walking distance of the office, and then afterwards I found out that google maps was showing the wrong address for Olympus, so they were 4km east of our hotel (fortunately just off the main arterial road I thought they were on). Anyway, we went to Olympus in the hope of getting the faulty TG-4 either replaced or refunded on the spot but they insisted that it needed to be checked first so we left it there and will return on Monday to collect either it or its replacement. There’s a whole blog waiting to be posted about the camera and our views on world-wide warranties and customer service, but I’ll wait to see how things eventuate on Monday before finishing off that post.

Back on the bike we rejoined the arterial road and crawled towards our hotel, whilst local riders just mounted the footpaths and scooted along them – how I wanted to join them – but bollards placed on the footpaths looked quite narrowly spaced and I didn’t want to get jammed in.

It took around 30 minutes to cover about 4km, but eventually we turned off the road down a little alleyway and quickly arrived at our Travelodge, home for the next three evenings.

Bike unloaded and dingy room moved into, we went for lunch back near the Main Street at a little Italian place – spaghetti and red wine for Karen and chicken with cashew nuts and Chang beer for me. This was our first meal of the day and it was about 2pm at this stage, so we were hungry and ready for a bite to eat.

In the afternoon I had a little nap – I was tired either from not sleeping too well last night and/or exhausted from the ride into Bangkok, and Karen worked on her photos.

In the early evening we went for a stroll around the local area, finding flash hotels nearby like the Sofitel and the Sheraton, and an airport-themed mall called ‘Terminal 21’ where floors are given names like ‘Paris’ or ‘Istanbul’ rather than floor numbers. We had Mexican for dinner here, walking past the Swenson’s icecream place that Mike would have enjoyed had he been here 🙂

Back at our dingy room Karen has been organising a few sightseeing activities for us whilst we’re in Bangkok this weekend and I’ve been blogging and reading the news. Check back tomorrow and Sunday to find out how we spent our weekend in this sprawling mega-city !!!

300km approx. Five hours including the border crossing.

After last night’s little drama where four guys tried to barge into our hotel room about 9:30pm before they realised they had the wrong room, and then they were waiting just outside at a table for over an hour before someone called off the dogs, sleep didn’t come particularly easy last night and I was grateful to see the sky getting lighter through our flimsy curtains as that meant I could get up and start the day.

We packed the bike quickly and then rode the brief distance down to the ‘beachside’ restaurant overlooking the river where we had dined last night. I walked across to the river edge and snapped a few photos of the guys working on the fishing boats at rest in the water, loading supplies and sorting out fishing nets, whilst a woman and an old man fished from the boat ramp.

Breakfast concluded – crispy bacon, eggs and tea & coffee – we were on the bike and across the long bridge to the toll booth on the far side, 1,400 riel fee to cross. The Cambodian border town of Cham Yeam is 10km west of the bridge and Karen and I chatted on the intercom about our experiences in Cambodia as we rode through the lush countryside. We’ve only been in Cambodia for 10 nights but the experience has been quite profound and we’ll both miss this country, still struggling to get back on its feet and having to face a range of social issues and problems.

We rode past the Koh Kong Safari World entrance and the International Resort which seemed modelled with a French influence dating back to perhaps the 1930’s before arriving at the small Cambodian border crossing station. We quickly had our passports stamped out, departure cards removed and fingerprints scanned, and then across the road an officer from the Customs department waved us over, and started to query us about why we didn’t have any Customs paperwork for the bike – essential apparently if you want to ride inside Cambodia. Karen switched her charm onto ‘full’ and explained in her most endearing voice that despite her erstwhile request at O’Smach – our entry point into Cambodia – they had told us that no paperwork was required.

The risk at this stage was that we might be sent back to O’Smach to get the required paperwork, but Karen’s charm worked wonders on the Customs officer who emphasised that ‘next time’ we must get the paperwork, before shaking our hands and waving us across the border. Phew !!!!!!

The short section of road leading to the Thai border control passed the ocean – this is the first time we’ve seen the sea since Albania and it was great. We filled out our arrival and departure cards for Thailand and then mistakenly stood in the line for ‘Visas On Arrival’ I was told I needed to get our passports stamped and the Simplified Customs Declaration Form for the motorbike sorted out, so I went to another window and had the passports stamped and then trotted across the road to yet another window, got the form completed as required, and then went back to the VOA window where the girl checked our paperwork, completed our vehicle conveyancing form in duplicate, and then gave everything back to us.

Karen walked past the border gate and went to get some cold cokes whilst I moved the bike up – we had some Thai baht from our earlier visit and that came in handy today. Drinks drunk we were back on the road and I could immediately tell that we were back in Thailand as the road was in great condition and the road markings and signage is immaculate.

Yesterday evening I’d plotted a route from Koh Kong to Pattaya – our destination for the day – but when loaded into the GPS it just drew a straight line from A to B, so I could only guess that we had between 300km and 400km to ride today. The first part of the ride was absolutely blissful – twisting, scenic road that stretched between the coast on our left and the mountains on the right, with minimal traffic to distract us. We cruised along around 110kmh – 120kmh here, but after a while I throttled back as I was trying to conserve fuel and avoid a refuelling stop today, as I wasn’t sure we had enough THB on us to pay for a tank load. Dropping our speed to around 100kmh changed our fuel consumption for the better – from initially projecting that we’d run out 40km from Pattaya we finished the day with 65km left in the tank. I can always guarantee a good reaction from Karen when I tell here how close we’ve come to using a full tank but I don’t do that often to maintain the element of surprise.

Gradually the roads started to widen and carry more traffic, and occasional signs showed that bicycles and motorbikes should stay in the far left lane, but we slipped through the traffic as we wished, taking advantage of the far left lane only when faced with a red light ahead, as then we could sneak to the front of the waiting traffic and get a great start on the green, pulling far ahead of the cars and trucks and getting some open road for a while.

About 150km into the ride I spotted “Ben’s Cafe” on the roadside so we pulled over for a brownie each and a cup of tea & coffee, before scooting off again, this time into some light drizzle that made the road surface slippery in some places. We did get the tyres zinging in one spot when a silly car driver started to do a u-turn into our lane, but I caught it before the bike did so I was pleased with that.

Towards the end of the ride and with about 5km to go the GPS wanted us to take a 25km detour but I spotted that before we got sucked into it, so I just ignored the suggested route and instead we picked our way through the back roads before popping out a short distance from our hotel – the Ruenthip Pattaya. I’m guessing that a glitch in the Open Street Map I’m using for Thailand (thanks Aad !!) had a small gap in the roads near our hotel and hence felt obliged to look for a complete route.

Our hotel is a few blocks back from the beach and one of the tallest buildings in the area. Our top-floor room on the 12th floor overlooks the sea and the view is lovely. We unpacked, showered to cool down and then walked to a nearby restaurant for a cheap lunch of fried chicken and cashew nuts, and then chilled out back in our room before walking to the beach just before sunset to take some photos and enjoy the view.

We found ourselves in a large, covered dining area that opened out over the sea, which had receded on the tide to leave a mess of junk on the beach. Patrons were ordering food from attentive waiters, and when we walked out the back of this place we came across the large kitchen where the chefs were busy at work, and tanks full of dinnerplate-sized crabs, lobsters, sea bass, and various types of prawns.

We walked south – in the direction of Pattaya, stopping at a small restaurant that had a walkway stretching past a river mouth around to the sea front, and took some more photos of the setting sun and young boys trying their luck with a fishing net in the shallow river water before we enjoyed a wine & beer.

Now we’re catching up on our regular jobs – Karen is looking for accommodation in Bangkok and I’m blogging away to Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”. We have an off-bike day tomorrow and then will scoot up to Bangkok to go visit Olympus Cameras and explore the city a bit. Bring it on !!!!

National Museum 18th Jan Phnom Penh

300km approx. 4.5 hours riding. Average speed – 64kmh.

For the past four nights our bike has been parked out the front of our dingy hotel, sheltered amongst a throng of scooters and motorbikes, all chained together and under the watchful eyes of the 24 hour security guards who are sometimes there and sometimes not. With these parking arrangements in mind I was up early this morning so I could move the bike out a bit before it got blocked in by any other bikes arriving for work today, and around 6:30am I was squeezing the bike out past its newfound scooter friends.

We loaded the bike quickly and Karen walked down to the Paddy Rice’s pub on the riverfront whilst I rode down. I parked on the riverfront road but that was a mistake as the morning traffic built up and a car that was parked and diverting traffic away from our bike moved off, exposing the bike to all the manic early morning bikes and trucks, so we pushed the bike back around the corner into 136 Street and relocated outdoor tables at Paddy’s so we could keep our watchful eyes on the bike. No one here in Cambodia has touched or interfered with the bike or our equipment but we still like to watch it when we’re out in public with it.

Breakfast was our standard fare at Paddy’s – eggs, bacon, sausages & toast – Karen gets my bacon and I get her sausage. On the bike we didn’t have too much trouble crossing the busy riverfront road to start our ride out of Phnom Penh, but shortly afterwards the GPS wanted us to turn the wrong way down a one-way street so we had to improvise for a while before we got into the right road, immediately bogging down in the stationery morning traffic.

It was a long, slow ride through the morning traffic and whilst usually I quite enjoy the cut and thrust of crazy riding in close traffic today I just wasn’t really in the mood for it and struggled to get a good rhythm going. Being passed by an old woman on a push bike whilst I sat stuck behind a big 4×4 going nowhere did nothing to improve my humour.

Motorbikes, scooters and tuk-tuks gravitate to the extreme right hand lane, cars travel in the centre lane, except when vehicles doing a u-turn (which is permitted at all the gaps in the central road divider) have stopped in advance of completing their turn – and at these points the cars spill into the motorbike lane and it all turns into a bit of a shitmix.

Eventually however the traffic started to thin out and we were able to chip away at our 300km target for the day, bound for Koh Kong, just 10km short of the southernmost Cambodian-Thai border crossing and last chance of accommodation before the border.

The countryside was rural and flat, cultivated land stretching out, occasionally interrupted by trees or little villages. A lot of trucks were heading in both directions and these were holding up the traffic a bit, breaking our rhythm and bringing on some nice overtaking moves – the bike howls like a banshee when it’s given a bit of throttle.

Around the halfway mark we pulled into a servo for some fuel, a cold Coke each and a chance to stretch our legs. At the nearby junction the road south headed to Sihanoukville, but we needed to head north from here, up into the Cardamom Mountains. The traffic dropped off immediately and the riding became more diverse and interesting as we climbed up the ‘mountains’ – peaking around 2,200m above sea level. We saw a few road signs warning about elephants, but we didn’t spot any unfortunately.

I’d guesstimated a 2:00pm arrival in Koh Kong and at 1:54pm we arrived at our pre-arranged accommodation – the Champ Koh Kong Guesthouse. The guesthouse was built in a large U shape, and was a bit south or the main intersection in town, just over the little bridge.

Neither the lady running the place nor her grandmother could speak English, so Karen needed to grab the iPad and show them our booking details, and chat with someone on the phone who relayed instructions to the first lady. We moved our gear into our log-cabin style room and covered the bike up – parked just outside – before walking into town for lunch.

The sun was scorching as we walked into town, and we were happy to find a place looking out across the river that served food, even if little birds were hopping around the counter and dogs were walking in and out of the kitchen. The beer was cold and the fried noodles with chicken tasty, and that’s all I needed.

The afternoon was spent doing chores at our guesthouse before we walked back into town on sunset to get some photos of the sunset behind the fishing boats tied up, and then had dinner again overlooking the river before I snapped some photos of the two old merry-go-rounds creaking and groaning on the foreshore.

Back at the guesthouse we were in bed early as I was knackered, but all sleep was interrupted about 9:30pm when a car pulled up in the car park outside, with the engine left running whilst the four occupants came to our door and started banging on it incessantly. I jumped out of bed and threw the door open and the four guys tried to barge into our room. Karen says one of them gave me a shove but I don’t recall that – I do however recall giving one of them a good shove back. Tit for tat really.

It only took them a couple of seconds to figure out that I wasn’t the person they were looking for – I guess standing in the doorway completely naked left nothing to the imagination, and they sheepishly apologised and backed off.

In the time it took me to grab a towel and go outside to make it clear I was pissed with them the guys had checked an adjacent room without success and were moving down the courtyard, apologising again as they walked past. I went back inside and the guys sat down at an outdoor table just outside our room.

Karen and I were completely perplexed regarding their motives and objectives. Initially I thought we were being robbed but that train of thought was quickly despatched. At least two of them had mag-light style torches on them, but none of them were wearing any kind of uniform and their utility vehicle had no official markings on it. Every now and then we could see from the torch beams sweeping across our window that they were patrolling the courtyard.

For the next ninety minutes or so we waited to see what happened as the guys chatted outside. Once or twice I thought I could hear a walkie-talkie being used, and eventually we could clearly hear a conversation (in Cambodian mind you so we couldn’t understand a word) over a radio, and shortly afterwards they all got back into their ute and drove off.

A very strange evening and not pleasant at all, but it could have gone much worse so we’re thankful that nothing else happened.

Footnote: the following morning as we rode out of town there was a large police presence cordoning off a government building as if they were expecting some big-wigs. Perhaps our late-night callers were police sent to ‘check on’ known agitators or trouble-makers before the big-wigs arrived – that may explain the mag-lights and walkie-talkies, the disciplined approach and their repeated apologies.

308km. 14th January.

Aad had spoken to Steve King, the owner of Panda Guesthouse in Siem Reap where we were staying and he had told Aad that the road from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh was in very bad condition with lots of roadworks, forcing oncoming traffic to share a single lane and had suggested that people should take the longer route via Battambang, but Karen and I had already booked our accommodation in Phnom Penh and needed to get there today, so we just prepared ourselves for a long day and whatever may arise, and had an early departure from our guesthouse.

Aad waved us off as we rode out, heading initially for breakfast in Siem Reap and stopping out the front of a Mexican restaurant, one of the few places open early enough to serve up food and coffee in time for us. The coffee was so nice I had two cups, whilst we enjoyed our cooked breakfast.

I tried to get some fuel before leaving town but couldn’t make any sense of what the servo we’d stopped at was pumping, so we pushed on – with about 305km to ride and 260km of fuel I’d need to find something down the road. The early morning traffic was getting thicker and more congested, but we made careful progress on the way out of town, eventually coming across a slow moving convoy of cars and open trucks following a couple of trucks full of people wearing white clothes and headbands, and a police vehicle in front with its red lights flashing. Once we had scooted past this convoy we were able to get up to a decent speed, enjoying the open road.

In the first 20km since leaving Siem Reap we did encounter some roadworks that made the riding quite difficult with very thick dust being thrown up by the trucks and cars obscuring our vision, so here I flipped on our hazard lights, hoping we wouldn’t get squashed in the dust. Once we’d cleared this section we found the road in good to great condition for the next 130km, with only a few more small areas of roadworks we needed to watch out for.

The countryside was pancake flat and predominantly rural, with just a few small villages and towns to break up the monotony of the flat horizon. In some places the road was built up high above the wooden houses below us, and many of these houses had a pond in front of them, often with a water buffalo wallowing in the muddy water as it enjoyed a rest.

We stopped for fuel, and a little while later stopped for a drink and some chips and stale Orio cookies – standard morning tea on the road here.

At the halfway-point we passed through Kampong Thma where the road direction changes from East to South, and we then had 70km of graded gravel road to contend with – very smooth, very dusty, and very difficult to see ahead through the dust clouds, but manageable – we cruised at 80kmh through this section. Some parts had been narrowed to 1.0 or 1.5 lanes wide but mainly it’s very wide, and minimal road work construction work was currently taking place. The last 80km into Phnom Penh was mainly on a wide four lane road with a central divider and light traffic.It took us 5.5 hours but that included a refuelling stop and a morning tea stop, so maybe 4.5 hours riding time in total.

Arriving in Phnom Penh I was grateful for our GPS leading us quickly and easily to our hotel, as the traffic in town was quite hectic, with heaps of 125cc motorbikes, tuk-tuks, cars, tourist buses and trucks all competing with pedestrians on the narrow roads. Arriving at our hotel – the Lance Court Hotel – it was apparent that we would need to park the bike up on the sidewalk in front of the hotel for parking, but th hotel assured us they had 24 hour security staff watching the parking area, so we checked in, unloaded the bike completely and then covered it up quickly, making it disappear under the cover.

The inside of the hotel stank – a truck had been parked up against the front door and was pumping crap out of underground tanks beneath the hotel and the air was rank with the smell. We went for a walk to get a late lunch and ended up at Sury’s Guesthouse one street up, where we enjoyed a cheap and tasty lunch.

Later that afternoon we took the short walk from our hotel to the riverfront – looking over the Tonle Sap towards where it converges with the Mekong, and taking in all the sights and sounds of Phnom Penh. Our hotel is on 136 Street, and a guide book I’d picked up and flicked through said that 136 Street was renowned for the number of hostess bars that populated the street towards the riverfront. Hmmm – I think Karen has landed us in the middle of the red light district here – that’ll make for a story or two I’m sure !!!

I could swear that I could hear it raining outside so I wasn’t in a rush to wake up or get out of bed, but when I did pull back the curtains the sun was shining and the ground dry so it was time to yet again pack the bike and clock up a few more miles – about 290km today that would take us all the way south from Surin to the Chong Chom – O’Smach border crossing between Thailand and Cambodia, and from there down to Siem Reap, home of the fabled Angkor Wat collection of temples.

Karen launched herself into packing our gear so whilst I bumbled around trying to wake up and retrieve the bike from the narrow corridor I’d slipped it down yesterday so it would be parked out of eyesight overnight, she had everything ready to throw on the bike. About 08:30am we got moving, looking for a place to get some breakfast.

Karen spotted a coffee place so we doubled back there, parked the bike, and cocked up our drinks order. We had intended to order a coffee and a tea – but presented with three columns of figures adjacent to each item on the drinks menu which suggested a sliding scale of cost as you up sized through small – medium – large – we ordered a large coffee and a medium tea but they came out as iced drinks served with a straw – only then did we notice that the column headings were hot – ice – something else that I can’t recall offhand. Duh !!!! We ordered hot drinks – and even then Karen wasn’t fussed on her Ceylon tea as it looked like carrot juice topped with frothy milk, so all-in-all it was a bit of a breakfast fail – even the 2 x ‘American Egg Breakfast’ we ordered would have been unrecognisable to any Americans ….

We refuelled just down the road and that was a bit more successful, and then headed for the border, chipping away at a nice pace in the light traffic. Exiting Thailand was very simple – I just handed in our ‘Simplified Customs Form’ that had been issued for the bike and get that stamped, and then our departure cards were checked and our passports stamped out at another hut, and then we were on our way to Cambodia – about 50m away.

We didn’t have any US$ on us and I’d checked the Thai Baht – US$ exchange rate last night – approx 1,100 THB = US$30, but I wasn’t surprised when we were told we needed to pay 1,300 THB each for our Cambodian Visa On Arrival. I argued a bit with the two guys behind the window but wasn’t getting anywhere, so after voicing my disapproval I paid the money and got a stamp in my passport from one of the guys which showed his title – some senior police dude in charge of visa services. Hmmmm – I should have filled out one of their feedback forms that invited comments on their visa services.

From the Immigration Office building we could see a couple of resorts just a stone’s throw away – apparently a lot of Thai’s cross the border to try their luck at the casinos here, before heading home again.

Once we had the paper visa stamps glued in our passports we then went to the next window where another officer meticulously poured over our arrival cards and passports, comparing the various entries, before stamping and counter-stamping and stamping again in our passports and on the forms, before rechecking all of the stampings and all of the forms. Very diligent. This officer told us to ride down the hill a bit to look for the Customs place where we could register the bike, so we thanked him and raced down the hill to get in front of a line of trucks making their way slowly down to the same spot.

The Customs place wasn’t much more than a box with a window cut in it, and here we just filled out a simple register which I signed. No carnet, no importation forms, no fees – yippee!!!!

Only one more checkpoint to get through – the final passport check, which was nothing more than a cursory glance a chuckle or two from the officer – and then we were on our way into Cambodia, back to riding on the right hand side of the road.

As a special treat for Karen I decided to avoid the shorter main route down to Siem Reap and instead opted for the back roads way there, so we turned left (east) at Phong, just south of O’Smach, and headed to Anlong Veng, before turning south for Siem Reap. This road was marked as a minor road on the map but was in good condition (though bumpy in places) and we made good time towards Anlong Veng.

A lot of locals had spread out some vegetable thing on tarpaulins on the side of the road – we passed km after km of this thing drying out in the sun, occasionally seeing people raking it over or spreading it out by hand.

Originally I’d planned to slip past Anlong Veng and scoot straight for Siem Reap without stopping but Karen was feeling thirsty so we left the bypass and headed into the centre of town, which looked a bit like Shitsville to be bluntly honest. The first ATM we tried wasn’t working, but after a bit more riding and then watching Karen do battle with the next ATM we found, we were finally cashed up – but in US$. Just near the cross-roads in the middle of town we stopped to get some cokes and condensed milk (Karen plans to make rice something-or-other sometime), and we were then back on the plan and heading down to Seam Reap.

The road was sealed, wide, and carried few cars but enough scooters and farm trucks. Scooter riders here are manic – they don’t check before veering off the road in any direction. We pushed on at a pleasant pace, enjoying using 6th gear for a change as up until a few days ago we haven’t needed or used it for ages.

About 30km or so north of Seam Reap the road narrowed and started to get bogged down with lots of tuk-tuks carrying tourists out to see the temples scattered around Angkor Wat, so this slowed our progress, and then the road surface became very pot-holed so that was another obstacle, but not nearly as challenging as the shit-for-brains car drivers we encountered when we finally entered Siem Reap proper.

We had to ride from one end of town to the centre and a bit beyond before arriving at our guesthouse, and it was almost like being back in India I thought, with cars and trucks and buses and scooters all over the road – coming at us on our side of the road, doing u-turns into oncoming traffic, stupid stuff like that. I was relieved when we arrived at the Panda Guesthouse, and we saw that Aad and Mike had beaten us here as their bikes were already parked down the side of the building.

We unpacked, caught up with Aad and Mike briefly when they returned from lunch, and then we nipped outside for a late lunch ourselves, before seeing the guys again and collectively arranging three days of temple sight-seeing via tuk-tuk, starting 09:00am tomorrow. I can’t wait to go see the temples (again) – but for now I need to dash and go charge the GoPro.

9th January, 390km (approx).

The plan today was to ride 390km south from Udon Thani to Surin, to put us within easy distance to get to the Thailand-Cambodia border crossing tomorrow. Karen was starting to look like a McDonalds McBacon McMuffin McBreakfast so for a change she went to the breakfast bar at our hotel and enjoyed their bacon, but I gave the Udon Thani McDonalds one last breakfast order and all my loose change.

We packed the bike under the watchful stare of hotel guests standing around the lobby of the Centara, and then got a round of ‘thumbs-ups’ from them as we rode away, initially in the wrong direction as the GPS hadn’t yet acquired enough satellites to figure out where we were.

Traffic was light as we departed Udon Thani, and out on the open road we tapped the bike a bit and cruised along around 110kmh – 120kmh for most of the day, enjoying the quickest pace we’ve had in ages, though frequently being baulked by slow cars and trucks. It was in these situations that the Thai riding practice of riding in the left hand motorcycle lane really paid off, as if the oncoming traffic was too dense to allow a safe pass on the right, we could legitimately pass on the inside using the motorcycle lane.

Aad had warned in a recent email that Highway 2 heading south from Udon Thani towards Bangkok and which formed a large part of the quickest route towards Surin was absolutely manic to ride on – Aad and Mike had seen a dead rider on the road just a couple of days ago and had read that there are about 80 fatalities/day in Thailand – making it the second-most dangerous place in the world to ride – so we avoided Highway 2 from the start and instead used the GPS to plot a motorcycle-friendly ‘curvy road’ route down to Surin, which probably added both time and distance to our ride, but also added fun and enjoyment, and subtracted some of the highway dangers that Aad had alerted us to.

Our country back-roads ride took us down narrow country roads in rural areas, passing through some sleepy villages scattered here and there. We stopped in one to refuel as I was a bit unsure about finding fuel further down the road, and the fuel pump attendants were amazed to see the big BMW, along with the off-duty policeman who came over to photo the bike, explaining as he did that he as only partially in uniform, as he showed off his casual shorts and things, underneath his uniform shirt.

Further down the road we stopped for a drink and a bag of crisps, not realising at this stage that this would end up constituting our lunch for the day. Just south of here we crossed a long bridge spanning a wide lake – stopping on the bridge to photograph the floating huts attached to the large fish-net contraptions they had.

We started to see signposts to a Dinosaur Museum, and whilst we didn’t go inside we did park the bike under a brontosaurus and took a few photos.

South of this place the road doubled in lanes and traffic, until we got bogged down in a town called Roi Et. GPS’s should have an option to ‘take town bypass roads if available’ as our GPS led us right through the centre of this town, still busy cleaning up the streets after an overnight celebration – Karen thought it might have been Chinese New Year perhaps. We did ride for a while with some young guys on their little bikes and we all had fun – we got a laugh out of them when we blipped the throttle whilst waiting for a red light to change green as one of the young guns almost launched himself off, much to the amusement of his mates.

South of Roi Et the road became more rural again so we upped the speed and settled back into our 110kmh cruise mode. The GPS led us straight to PPS Home – cheap at $20, clean, easy parking with the bike right outside our ground floor room, and no food within walking distance – so after getting some cold Chang beers (no time constraints on buying alcohol in Surin I note) we ordered pizza and had that delivered, and watched the last of the Harry Potter movies.

Tomorrow we enter Cambodia and ride to Siem Reap to visit Angkor Wat and catch up with Aad and Mike. It’ll be great to see the guys and hear about their time at YSS in Bangkok. Bring it on !!!

I think the plan with Aad and Mike was to be on the bikes for 7:30am – as a surprise Karen and I were ready about 07:00am for a change – packed, loaded, lights washed clean to remove the dust and grime, and water bottles refilled, so we headed off and stopped out the front of the UXO Survivors Office to get some information and then rode the short distance back to Nisha’s Indian to meet the guys for breakfast. We’d met Francios – the French guy in his Toyota camper – here the night before, and also Andre and his wife (they are from Tasmania), and we’d next bump into Francios in Luang Prabang a few days later – what a small world it is !!!

My chocolate chapati was different and very oily to eat, but the Lao coffee was nice. Aad, Mike and Karen all had eggs & baguettes which they enjoyed. After a quick fuel stop (my 22L cost about AU$30 so no cheap fuel here in Laos – and this fuel would cause me problems later in Luang Prabang when the bike stalled a couple of times at slow speeds in heavy night traffic) we were heading out of Phonsavan about 08:30am, bound for the Kacham Waterfall, about 255km away or so.

The 125km road from Phonsavan to Phou Khoun is a fantastic ride – I’d commented when writing about my previous ride along this road in 2011 in the reverse direction that everyone should ride this road at least once, and my earlier comment still stands. The road twisted through the hills – at times you could see through five or six curves ahead, and this encouraged a nice quick pace, only tempered by the frequent cows that stood either slap bang in the middle on the road, or right on the edge. I had toyed with the idea of taking a small detour to show Mike the old abandoned airfield at Mong Souy but I got completely sidetracked with the riding – the first time I stopped I realised that I’d ridden the whole section to Phou Khoun and the airfield was near the other end back towards Phonsavan, so that will have to wait for another trip.

Karen and I grabbed a cheap and cheerful meal at the Phou Khoun Restauarant – whilst we watched the minivans full of pack-packers and tourists pulling into town for a break. I don’t think there’s much to see or do here, except have a leg stretch and bite to eat on the trip from Vientiane to Luang Prabang. Lunch finished, we headed north towards LPB, with the road deteriorating in places and the traffic becoming heavier and more stupid.

We stopped at a roadside stall and bought some bananas, and went halves with Mike to buy some spring onions to add to our noodles. We saw some cooked rats hanging up but couldn’t be tempted.

Aad and Mike needed fuel, and I wasn’t anticipating that we’d be able to get any food at the waterfall, so we stopped in Xieng Ngeun. The last few downhill km into town was a bit hectic with tour minivans clinging to the bikes, trying to make us ride faster. I’d pull to the side and let them go through as there was nothing to be gained by holding them up, a few times I was concerned that the other guys were going to get rear-ended by an over-ambitious van driver.

A few years ago the road south-west from Xiang Ngeun had been unsealed but its recently been paved and it didn’t take us long to cover the 18km down to the waterfall. The track into the waterfall itself was unpaved, but reasonably good. The park boom gate was up and no one was in the ticket booth – which meant there was no one to speak to regarding arranging one of the small chalets there. I rode up to the end of the track to where the waterfall and restaurant were, and chatted to a man working there who said that we could pitch our tents on the grass there. Yippee !!!

It was about 04:30pm at this stage so we worked fast to get our tents up – Karen and I are still battling with trying to inflate our air mattresses – and as the sun went down on another great riding day we were all seated above the waterfall pool, enjoying a drink and stale crisps. Whilst we had planned to cook dinner the restaurant – whilst empty of patrons – was open, so we ordered dinner from there as a way of saying ‘thanks’ for being allowed to camp at the waterfall. Karen ordered a beef steak and had high hopes for it, but it was served all sliced up and quite spicy – so she had some of my chicken fried rice and the beef was shared between Aad, Mike and myself.

We were all early into bed, listening to the sound of the waterfall and occasionally hearing local people walking past our tents late into the night as they headed up the steep forest track into the mountains for a moonlit night of hunting and foraging.

The weather forecasts that Aad had consulted hadn’t said good things were coming, and when I checked it looked like rain was going to be with us most of the way to Phonsavan, 267km south-west of Vieng Xai. It had taken Aad and Mike nine hours to travel this route yesterday with only 2 X 5 minute breaks along the way, and Aad reporting thick fog and thick mud in places, with his Triumph sliding sideways through the mud at times. Yippee – bring on an adventure ride !!!!

I’d set the alarm for 06:00am but when it went off Karen was keen for a bit more of a sleep-in so it was about 07:00am when we got up. I wanted to leave Vieng Xai no later than 08:30am as I wanted to get to Phonsavan before dark. We packed the bike – the front locking-latch on my pannier wasn’t co-operating so a whack with a piece of timber sorted that out.

Karen returned the unused condom (still packaged) and 300,000 kip to our host, making it quite clear with him that she didn’t think much of his room-cleaning service, and walked the 100 metres or so to the Indian restaurant we’d discovered whilst I rode the bike there. We met the young Finnish guy there who is back-packing around SE Asia and enjoying local herbs and other plant products as he does so. He chatted about his travels along Australia’s east coast and spoke highly of Nimbin 🙂

Breakfast was banana pancakes for us both, tea for Karen and a Lao coffee with condensed milk for me. Just as we were getting ready to leave – we were taking photos of our Indian chef actually – the young Italian couple wandered in. I need to check their Facebook site or website – Cycling Around Asia dot Net from memory. A lovely couple – full of energy and enthusiasm.

It was 08:29am when we left the Indian Restaurant on the bike, careful not to drop it in the thick mud that had caked the rocky parking area out the front. I needed to maintain an average speed of 30kmh to make Phonsavan by nightfall, and our first target was Xam Neau, 27km away. The road was shrouded in mist but we chipped away carefully and consistently. The earth movers that had delayed us a few days ago had moved away from the road and whilst their work area was still a muddy slick we didn’t have any problems getting up the hill – these Karoo 3 tyres are handling mud quite well at this stage (but they whine a lot and they are giving Karen the willies – on our first day with them she was ready to slash them to pieces so we’d have to go back to our old favourites – the Continental TKC80’s – and I must agree that I much prefer the Conti’s. With that said – when choice is limited the Karoo’s do a satisfactory job).

Approaching Xam Neua the mist became much heavier – so thick that I was riding with the hazard lights on to make the bike more visible, and I was using the GPS to show me which way the curves were going, and what radius they were describing. It was absolutely freaky – whilst oncoming traffic wasn’t heavy they would just appear out of the mist, usually without any lights on at all and very difficult to spot early. It was almost impossible to look out for potholes as the road surface was obscured by the swirling mist. I rode with my visor open and the windshield of the bike jacked up high – this arrangement allowed me to see the path ahead in its clearest form, as every time I pulled my visor down it would cloud over with water droplets on the outside.

We didn’t stop in Xam Neau but pushed straight on. The steep hill on the far side of town was a muddy shitfest of a road – this is where Aad had been sliding sideways yesterday. I got pinned down by a girl on a slow motorbike ahead so dived to the inside into the thicker mud to try and get around her but quickly discovered that the road surface on this line was all corrugated under the mud and so Karen and I had a very bumpy and slippery drive up the hill – but we nailed the slow bike and I had fun along the way 🙂

South of Xam Neau the mist didn’t improve and if anything it got even worse as we climbed up to about 1,400 metres above sea level. We carried on in the cold and the mist – I was warm enough in my riding gear with my inner layers in it, but Karen was feeling the cold in her unlined suit, even though she was wearing a bright yellow poncho she’d bought yesterday that made her look like a big Minion. We pushed on, dodging the oncoming traffic that appeared out of nowhere and just aiming to keep the bike on the road because at times I couldn’t see the road ahead of me.

We had a short break as I needed a leak, so I found a safe spot to park the bike and whilst I watered the plants a couple of inquisitive cows strolled down the road to check us out. Back on the bike we were quickly back into the mud, but this time it was largely dry and had formed hard ruts and ridges that we needed to negotiate in the low visibility.

To keep our spirits up I started chatting about food (a frequent strategy we use), and our discussion about hamburgers started us getting hungry so when saw some roadside stalls selling banks we pulled over to buy a few. Karen got off the bike and negotiated with the banana woman to buy four of them, whilst I stayed on the bike as quite frankly it’s a bitch to try and park it on the side of the road most of the time. As we are riding on the right hand side of the road I try and park on that side, but usually the verge on the right side of the road is sloping to the right and the BMW is too upright – frequently I need to turn the bike completely around so that I can get it on the right angle.

Anyway – Karen had a short walk along the market stalls we’d stopped at and took some photos of the dozen or so rats hanging up by their tails from one shop after she had bought her bananas. A lot of the ladies had come down to see us and Karen tried to get them into a group photo shot but some of them turned away every time she lifted up her camera.

One village we passed through looked like all of its inhabitants were gathering for some form of tree planting ceremony, as they had gathered in groups along the roadside with small saplings and digging implements.

Whilst our bananas were nice it didn’t take long before we started thinking about food again, and as we couldn’t see anywhere to eat in Pho Lou we pushed on past this junction town about 6km further south and saw our first place to sit and eat since passing through Xam Neau a few hours earlier. We ordered two bowls of Lao noodle soup and we wolfed that down, Karen trying to extract some heat from the small brassiere nearby. Once we’d eaten and warmed up a bit we chatted to a Californian couple in the restaurant that are riding two push bikes from Myanmar to Tajikistan via SE Asia and China. They’ve got 15 months for their trip, which had just started a few weeks ago. Full credit to them – I’ll keep to my motorbikes and sidecars thanks !!!

For the first five minutes of our next riding leg I was able to enjoy the bike at its peak, playing with the dynamic mode and eating up the curvy mountain road, but it wasn’t long before we were back into the thick mist, with the bike backed off into its more forgiving rain mode and the hazard lights flashing eerily. We rode through roadside villages like a ship in fog, passing people walking along the edge of the road and barely being able to make out their shapes. It as a draining, surreal experience, not helped by some of the trucks that seemed to spring out of nowhere right in front of us as they used up all the road and more.

Eventually however we dropped down from the mountains into a wide valley below, leaving the mist behind us. It was on this last mountain descent that we had the worst scare of the day – having successfully negotiated all of the challenges thrown up already in terms of mist and mud we were faced with an idiot in a four wheel drive overtaking a slower mini truck bearing down upon us at great speed as he tried to get in front of the truck. I’d blipped our loud horn when I saw him pull out but that just spurred him on I think so next we were hard on the brakes trying to give him more room and I’d swear he just managed to shave in between our bike and the truck as we passed each other. We’d seen some quite considerate drivers today – most often the big truck drivers – but this wanker in his 4×4 was right at the other end of the scale.

Approaching Phonsavan we passed through a number of villages in which we saw two lines of traditionally dressed girls and guys throwing tennis balls backwards and forwards to one another – a mating game from what we learned later from Mick the Irishman (more about Mick in tomorrow’s blog).

I’d been aiming to arrive in Phonsavan an hour earlier than Aad and Mike, and still with 200km of fuel in the tank, so it was a juggle between speed (which is somewhat relative as we didn’t exceed 66kmh in the whole day) and fuel efficiency. As it was we pulled into our guesthouse car park around 4:45pm – cutting about 45 minutes off their trip, and with 220km worth of fuel onboard. The big fuel tank on our GS Adventure – 30 litres – is reason enough to pick this bike over the standard GS with its smaller fuel tank, as with less frequent refuelling stops required we can push on if we want to.

A lot of our evening chats with Aad and Mike revolve around what is or could be the perfect adventure bike – and I’d have to say that our big BMW really earned its stripes today. Out of the box it had everything I needed to make today’s dangerous and at times quite scary ride more manageable – auxiliary headlights on the crash bars, hazard lights, heated grips so I didn’t lose the feeling in my hands, the adjustable windscreen, variable riding modes, GPS that allowed me to ride via instruments, tractable engine performance from down low right through to 7,000RPM and above that allows predictable power delivery, ABS and traction control, and a comfortable seating position that doesn’t induce fatigue even two-up. Ultimately the best adventure bike is a personal choice and there is no one correct answer, but I wouldn’t want to have been riding anything else today. With Karen riding pillion my number one priority is always safety and the big BMW – ungainly and unsightly as it is – just ate up the crappy riding conditions without a hiccup. Credit also to Karen as she did a great job today on the back of the bike. All pillions can exert a big influence on a bike as its being ridden, and in the tricky conditions today Karen never flinched once, allowing me to concentrate on the job I needed to do on what has been one of our toughest riding days on the trip (nothing will beat Albania though!!!)

Dinner was a hamburger at Craters Restaurant, along with Aad and Mike. I’d enjoyed a couple of meals here last time I was in Phonsavan – 2011 I think – and Helge Pederson and his riding mate stopped here when they were riding around SE Asia to make the documentary ‘Globe Riders – Indochina’. And the chocolate icecream they served for dessert was delicious!

There’s a sombre collection of large (and defused) bombs on the verandah of Craters, remnants of the 1964 – 1973 war – the secret war that the USA waged against Laos without ever declaring war or telling the American people about what it was doing. Tomorrow we’ll go visit the Plain of Jars and the Mines Advisory Group office just across the road, and we’ll learn more about this war and the devastating impact it has had, and continues to have, on this country and its people.

24th December

The plan was to be down at the bikes at 7:30am so I’d set the iPad alarm for 7:00am but in Vieng Thong you don’t need to set your own alarm apparently as the local authorities take care of that by blasting out an ongoing stream of news announcements, public information messages and rallying songs over the town’s PA system from 6:00am onwards. Karen was less than impressed as the loud speakers seemed to be right outside our bedroom window and the sound was almost deafening.

On coming downstairs Aad and Mike had already started to load their bikes, and Stephanie (One World – One GS rider) was looking over her 100cc bike she’d bought in Vietnam, so Karen chatted with her whilst I brought the rest of the gear down. Stephanie shared a few tips and suggestions with Karen on how to ride a tall bike – she starts up the bike, puts it in gear and starts to move off as she swings up onto the seat. Karen had a sit on her small 100cc bike and managed to reach the ground – maybe she will switch to riding rather than pillioning one day! Stephanie also explained to Karen how she broke her leg during a demonstration trial on the GS, falling from a couple of metres onto the ground below, and how after the original surgery was botched up she required two years and another four operations to fix her leg. She spent most of that time in a wheelchair, and wasn’t supposed to be riding a motorcycle on this trip to SE Asia, but got bored of backpacking around 🙂

Breakfast itself was purchased from the shop across the road, water and chocolate biscuits for me, Coke and chocolate biscuits for everyone else. About 8:30am we were on the road heading towards Xam Tai, about 170km away.

The road climbed higher up into the mountains – peaking around 1,400 above sea level, mainly hovering between 1,100 and 1,200 metres. The road itself closely followed the mountain ridges, switching from side to side occasionally, sometimes running right along the ridge so you could look down into the valleys far below on either side. Some of the valleys had clouds inside them, and we could look down upon the tops of the clouds.

Arriving in Pho Lou I signalled to Mike to see if he wanted a drink, and we both pulled off the road just short of the only intersection in this little village (most villages here in northern Laos don’t have any intersections so this three way junction was a big thing). Aad was a couple of minutes behind us and we thought he was joking a round when he rode straight past us – even as we stood next to the road and waved our arms madly – and stopped in the middle of the intersection, looking to see which way to turn. We yelled out to him and he turned around and rode back to us, less than impressed with our corner-marking system 🙂

Mike and Aad both needed a small amount of fuel to get them through to Xam Neau, the largest interim town on today’s ride, so they each took onboard 5 litres of fuel from a 44 gallon drum of fuel that was being hand-pumped by a middle-aged lady. We pushed on to Xam Neau, carefully negotiating the mud-slicked hill leading down to the town, and stopped again to refuel. Karen and I had seen a big pig strapped to the back of a small motorcycle a short while earlier and this passed us as we refuelled. We rode into town and whilst I’ve been here before (years ago) I got my bearings wrong and hence took us to a restaurant that had been a dismal failure on my last trip, but fortunately today the fried noodles with chicken I ordered, and the chicken fried rice everyone else had was very tasty.

I watched over the bikes as the others went looking for an ATM and food supplies – coming back having found an ATM but no food, so we remounted and rode around town for a while before finding a small shop to get some supplies from, as from memory Vieng Xai didn’t have too much to offer.

From Xam Neau it was another 27km out to Vieng Xai, with a small delay thrown in when we were halted by some roadworks that we’re going on, with two large diggers shovelling sand from one side of the road to the other. A large number of motorbikes and cars were banked up on either side of the roadworks, and it was a mad scramble when the diggers halted their work and traffic was allowed through. The road itself had been dug up and was a muddy quagmire, and this took some effort to ride through safely, made harder again with all the other bikes and cars pushing ahead.

Arriving in Vieng Xai we rode to the co-ordinates given by booking dot com for our hotel, just to end up a few km out of town towards Vietnam and surrounded by jungle. We rode back into town and with a small amount of guesswork found our hotel, set back from the road and surrounded by a fence. We unpacked our gear and both Karen and Aad got stuck into the man running the hotel – our bathroom hadn’t been cleaned and no lights worked in Aad’s room.

Dinner this evening was cooked on the dragonfly on the open entrance foyer of the hotel – a nice noodle omelette. Pots washed up, Karen tried unsuccessfully to download a Christmas movie to get into the mood for Christmas, but either the Internet or iTunes wasn’t co-operating and so instead we turned to one of Mike’s movies – “Wild Target” – a quirky dark comedy starring Bill Nigh and Emily Blunt, which we were enjoying but I was knackered from the riding and constant concentration the riding demanded today, so we stopped the movie about 2/3rds in. And so ended our Christmas Eve 🙂

127km day today, and yes you’ve guessed it – it’s been another stunning riding day in Laos 🙂

We had a lazy start to the day today with Karen and I surfacing about 08:10am to be greeted by Mike preparing a pot of porridge for us all to share on the balcony overlooking the river. We didn’t have enough UHT milk for porridge and ovaltine so after we’d had breakfast and packed the bikes I led Aad and Mike back across the Nong Khiaw bridge to Delilah’s cafe for a hot chocolate which was a bit of a mistake as it took ages for our order to be taken and then even longer for our drinks to arrive.

It was 10:15am or even later when we finally rolled out of Nong Khiaw and started on our 167km ride to Vieng Thong, which would be made more interesting as Aad and Mike didn’t have sufficient fuel to ride the distance and we weren’t sure if there was any fuel along the way.

Just like yesterday we took the opportunity every now and then to stop and say ‘Sabidee’ – ‘hello’ to local children as we passed by, and snapped a few photos. In one village we passed by the primary school just as class finished for the day (it was the middle of the day) and all the kids came running out of the school yard to say hello and to see the bike – or perhaps take a closer look at the Batman Minion we’ve cable-tied to the crash-bars.

We also stopped for a drink and some just out-of-date biscuits at a little stall, staying a little longer as Mike wasn’t feeling too good. Aad and I put on a bit of dance to try and cheer Mike up but this impromptu entertainment failed to impress.

Despite not feeling 100% today Mike was loving the riding as the road surface had been ripped up in many places and we had a fair bit of unsealed crap to ride through. In one place Karen and I had to dodge between some earth-moving equipment as they worked on the road – no such thing as flag marshals or safety procedures here !!!

My GPS showed a fuel stop ahead so I pulled into that, with Mike and Aad not far behind. The girl who pumped the fuel was a bit gobsmacked when she filled the bike – and it only took on 10L of its full 30L capacity, as the little scooters here in Laos have much smaller fuel tanks that can be filled much much quicker.

A bit further down the road we saw a sign for a restaurant so we pulled in there and ordered lunch, but the chicken, sticky rice and soup that was served up didn’t appeal to either Karen, Aad or Mike, so by and large I ate my lunch whilst they just picked at theirs and they left as hungry as they had been when they arrived, and at this stage it was about 3:15pm and we had approx 70km still to ride and two hours before sunset.

I picked up my pace a bit and when Mike pulled over to take a photo we slipped into the lead position on the road and we didn’t see the other guys again until they arrived at the designated guesthouse in Vieng Thong. Karen and I had a six minute lead over Aad and Mike, but Mike explained that he’d lost a bolt from his chain guard after hitting a big pothole in the road, and he’d spent a few minutes fixing that with the help of Aad. Karen and I had hit the same pothole earlier and she had hurt her arm in the process so neither of us were too happy about that – we’d managed to weave and duck around every other pothole today, but this one was laying in wait for us – perfectly camouflaged and stretching the width of the road. We ground out our centre stand on it, and I was thankful we didn’t get a puncture.

Just after we arrived at our guesthouse a young couple – an English lady and a French guy arrived on two clapped out 100cc motorbikes they had bought in Vietnam and had ridden across the border. Karen was chatting with them at it turned out that the lady is Stephanie Rowe – a participant in ‘One World – One GS’, and Vincent – who races his GS in rallies in Europe.

We went out for dinner with Aad and Mike about 6:30pm but it was black outside and most of the shops were closing for the day. We walked back to the place next to our guesthouse where we ordered some meat and noodles, and shortly later Stephanie and Vincent joined us, unable themselves to find anywhere else to eat. We had a good chat about bikes and riding with them before retiring early to bed as tomorrow will be a long day and we’ll need an early start.