We had a short ride to do today so a leisurely breakfast and packing of the bike had us on the road from the S Park Design Hotel (US$63 per night) by around 9.00am

The GPS was playing up trying to send us on a route over 300km when we really only needed to travel around 80km. But Vince in his intrepid style “winged” it as we could see the Friendship Bridge with Thailand on the other side of the Mekong River. The Laos side of th borde was a little haphazard with not a lot showing in English to assist us, but we managed with some officials pointing us towards the correct windows to get our passports stamped as well as the paperwork for exporting the ANIMAL out of Laos……I wouldn’t say it was an easy or streamlined process but in the scheme of things not too bad. Unfortunately, the Thai side was nothing short of a dog’s breakfast. There were signs in English but not a lot of it made sense. There were many windows numbered up to 10, with some including A’s and B’s etc……they didn’t run in sequence and there were several saying “Visa on Arrival”……very confusing! After unsuccessfully lining up a couple of times, and having to let some locals know just exactly where the end of the que was (as many thought it ok to just push to the front) we eventually found our way to No 7 were we had to get forms to fill in along with a form for the importation of the ANIMAL…we we’re then told to go to No 6 and then to 5. After lining up at 6 we were told NO…..we had to go to 5 first…so off we went. Vince got through ok but when it was my turn the officer demanded money (which we didn’t have in THB) ….I asked what the fee was for but it was never explained. I told her we had no Thai money, only Kip, which she made clear she didn’t want….. so Vince went to find an ATM. She told me to stand aside and I refused, as she still had my passport! She told me that I couldn’t have it back until I paid the money, and I said that was fine but as there was no signage with fees or rates and I had no money at this point…… I was still not moving aside until I had my passport…..other westerners in the line start had also asking about the reason for the money as well….suddenly I found myself being handed back my passport, fully stamped, and she waved me away! I caught up with Vince and we still went to the ATM so we had some local money anyway. I am not sure if the fee was legitimate or a scam……we certainly got scammed at the last border crossing from Thailand……corruption is very evident at times….no explanation, or if one is given it doesn’t make sense, no formal evidence of a fee scale etc and certainly no receipts or paperwork for the transactions!

We road into Thailand and were stopped at two different police checkpoints …..Vince was teasing me that we were boarder runners and their must be an APB out on me…..which of course was all nonsense and we passed through them without any problems at all.

Vince had organised for us to stay at the Centara Hotel, right next to the Central Plaza shopping centre and walking distance to Bangkok Hospital Udont Thani ….the hotel was lovely and on special only A$53 per night…..the lap of luxury….I could get used to this! We had lunch in the shopping centre at Santa Fae Steakhouse… match for the one we had in Le Vendome in Vientiane! We also booked our tickets to see Star Wars The Force Awakens at the cinema at 8.10pm.

I had a wander around the shops and Vince gave me a belated Christmas gift of a bottle of perfume……feeling very spoilt! We bought 3 external hard drives …. as our laptop is almost full and we need to back things up and post them home….a time consuming job over the next few days!

Dinner was at the Pizza Company and then we went to catch the movie….all very civilised! Star Wars was good to see on the big screen…true to the original Star Wars!

On Saturday (2nd Jan) we had planned to ride just from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng – actually just a few km south of Vang Vieng -but we couldn’t locate the guest house there that Aad and Mike had booked – and when we checked with some guys at a nearby petrol station they rang the owner and he said he was 30km south – we rode down there but still couldn’t find it, so we tried to push on to Vientiane but the road was bad with many potholes and roadworks and it was getting late, so we stopped short.

Then on Sunday morning (3rd Jan) we did the last stretch into Vientiane…staying a the lovely S Park Design hotel (A$80 per night) and a welcome return to normality for me…..everything is clean, everything works, the hot water and shower is to die for, there are crisp white sheets, four pillows on the double bed, bedside tables, toilet paper ( even a spare roll) and toiletries in the bathroom, a TV, Mini Bar, Wifi, there is room service, and we got all our washing done! I’m in “Heaven”! I do think traveling overland and roughing it is much harder for girls than it is for boys…..they seem to be able to cope better with a lack of hygiene and creature comfort facilities…..although I must say Vince is very good in that he does plan a little indulgence now and then to keep me going…..not sure I could survive without that! Even Adventure Girl still needs the odd bit of pampering and girl stuff!

We’ve parted ways with out travelling companions, Aad and Mike, for the moment – they headed towards Vientiane with us but stopped on the outskirts of the city and changed their minds regarding their plans – they were fed up with the bad roads and some bad drivers so they decided to skip Vientiane and southern Laos and instead they went straight into Thailand where everything is a bit more civilised and orderly. We said brief goodbyes …. Well not really goodbye just ’till we meet again I’m sure. I know they didn’t want a big emotional thing so I tried very hard not to cry….and managed……they have become like our family on the road…they ones you choose for yourself! We’ve had a great time with them and I’m sure we’ll cross paths again soon – possibly when it comes time to transport the bikes back to Australia.

Our first night in Vientiane was really just getting showered and sorting our our dirty washing as things are desperate…we are BOTH on commando underwear mode now and I love Vince but I can’t stand to be too close to him in his riding gear…he PONKS BADLY! Dinner was in the Musso Resturant attached to our hotel and this was a very unusual place…..featuring motorbikes and superhero memorabilia in an environment so dimly lit you could hardly read the menu or see your food….which was tasty but very expensive. The alcohol was only sold by the bottle (including spirits) so we opts for soft drink…and even that was served strangely….with the can put aside on a separate area and when I finished my glass is was quickly whisked away with vulture like accuracy and replaced without my knowledge and in doing so ended up being two cans used instead of the one….very crafty…..there were so many staff they grossly outnumbered the patrons and consequently we felt most uncomfortable as our every move was watched and pounced on.

On Mon 4th Jan we awoke fresher after a great sleep in a comfortable bed….although I awoke to a bad allergy and had to take some steroids to calm it…interestingly Vince said he had a bit of bother breathing during his curry last night…..I wonder if our meals were loaded with MSG…..hmmmmm…..’Tis a puzzlement! Breakfast was at the hotel and was unremarkable.

We got a taxi into town but the driver dropped us far away from our destination so we walked for miles to go to the post office …..I am not really into exercise and I am sure marrying a personal trainer it was probably on the cards he would try to work on my fitness….I begrudgingly chunter and complain the whole way….but I do do it! It was a long way and the GPS was less than helpful at times but at least it was open (unlike our unsuccessful attempt in Luang Prabang. We had a bit of a mission and a huge cost (508,000 Kip/LAK) for just 2.5kg and we didn’t end up posting our pr virus anniversary painting back as they didn’t have cardboard tubes and the brown paper on offer just wasn’t going to offer any protection. We will try again from Thailand.

After the most office we had another long trek in the heat in search of the MAG Office. We stopped off in a cafe for a drink and some noodles before facing the heat again. We were intrigued by the names of streets and businesses……French, Swiss, German, Korean and a lot of Vietnamese. MAG was very interesting, we looked around a ND watched some videos…..not as emoji ally shocking as our experience in the UXO Survivor Centre in Phonsovan, but non the less confronting. We spoke with Noy (Information Officer) and Bethan (Program Officer). Bethan had just arrived from their HQ in Manchester, England and will now manage programs in Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam. We bought some t-shirts for Vince and his brother, Ken (our No 1 support team in Australia) and a DVD – so whatever space we reclaimed by sending stuff back this morning we’ve subsequently filled again.

We managed to get a tuk tuk back to our hotel…..quite expensive here (60,000 Kip/LAK on average) and the heavy traffic jams didn’t help our journey. For dinner we had a special treat….Vince had been promising me a great pepper steak and chocolate shuffle at a French restaurant, Ven Dome, he had gone to on his last visit, near his previous accommodation. It was vu romantic and the food and carafe of red wine was just the ticket. Coincidently, we met up with Andrai and Ingrid….a couple from Tasmania we ran into several times in Phonsovan (Plain of Jars, UXO Survivor Centre and Nisha’s Indian Restaurant). They too had come for the great food. Vince told me that during the war this place was frequented by the CIA spooks and journalists and I could picture them here in that time warp.

A fantastic and memorable day!

On 5th Jan we went to visit the COPE Visitor Centre where they make prosthetic limbs for UXO victims  – and that was supposed to be quite an inspiring place to visit from what we’ve read – but I found it very depressing and in fact it made me angry to see the carnage of civilian casualties, especially children. The US has a lot to answer for and really needs to take responsibility for the clean up required…..very disappointing that they do not appear to have stepped up to this!

We went for a walk around and intended to visit the World Trade Centre…but found it is still under construction. We had late lunch at the Billabong Sports Bar and Grill, we had tried to go back to Le Vendome but it was closed. As we walked towards the river to see the sunset over the Mekong, we stopped off at a little handicraft shop, Saoban, which sells handmade items from women exiting prostitution by providing safe work environments and alternative income….we wanted to support this in some small way….so we purchased a silk scarf for 200,000 Kip/LAK. There are so many worthy causes here  we wish we could give more, but we are quickly running out of money options ourselves as we enter the final few months of our trip.

Tomorrow we head for Udon Thani, Thailand so I can make my orthopaedic specialist appointment at the hospital and hopefully get rid of this cast and start Physio. There’s a cinema next to our hotel in Udon Thani, so we are hoping to catch the new Star Wars.

Although we knew it was the 31st Dec, last day of our 2015 adventures….it somehow didn’t seem much like NYE in Luang Prabang, Loas. People were gearing up with lights and signs, so unlike Christmas they do celebrate it here….but it just didn’t have the same feel to it…..not that we are party animals in any case….we generally don’t even see in the New Year….tucked up in bed asleep it just seamlessly passes us by.

The four of us walked into town (quite a way as in most places the cheap accommodation is always out of town) and after getting some money out of the ATM we stopped in at a little place called “Merry 2” for breakfast…..nothing to write home about but sustaining none the less. The waitress gifted us 4 mandarins for New Year.

We then continued our walk through town…and Vince and I stopped and looked at small Art Gallery, where we were impressed with the local artist’s work and considered purchasing one as a gift to each other for our first wedding anniversary tomorrow. The boys waited outside as “they don’t do art” according to young Mike. Walking a bit further down we saw the way up to Mt Phousi. Vince had been to the top on his previous visit and wanted to show me….so we climbed Mt Phousi (I know he loves me but sometimes I think he’s trying to kill me!) On the way up I was tempted to hit the gong but managed to restrain myself. We passed a lady with flower offerings and small bamboo cages holding pairs of birds…..these she indicated were offerings for good luck. Whilst we didn’t really want to encourage trapping birds and selling them I did want to do something (I hate seeing birds in cages) so we purchased a pair for 20,000 kip/LAK and I later freed them in the bush. At the top we had a bit of a rest and enjoyed the great view over that town. The Temple was similar to many others we have seen before. On the way down the other side of the mountain it was much easier and near the bottom there were many replicas of the woman we had seen going up….all selling the same flowers and cages with 2 small birds inside. Aad and Mike elected not to climb the mountain so they were waiting for us when we came down and we all went across the road to the National Museum.

I was overheating and had guzzled down a bottle of water….which made me feel ill, so I sat in the shade in the National Museum grounds whilst the others took their photos. The gates were being closed for lunch time and we found ourselves trapped as I watched patron after patron being redirected way over to the other side of the grounds….the people on the gate then let a group of Asian tourist through so that was it ….we were going though that gate….my mind was set…..they boys were reluctant to take on the challenge but I was determined……so off I went and when they tried to redirect me I directly questioned them as to why they let the others through and not us…….suddenly locks were being undone and we were being let through!

We all took a stroll down to the river, passing the accommodation where Vince had stayed at previously…..cute bungalows. There we cafes and restaurants all along the river and we watched a ferry coming from the other side of the Mekong. Vince wanted to stop for a coffee but the boys wanted to push on, so we parted ways agreeing to meet up at the Belgian Beer Garden (which we had spotted opposite the little art gallery) for lunch.

The coffee place, Saffron, uses locally grown beans…..a replacement crop for the opium poppies now illegal for the hill tribes. Vince really enjoyed it and I had a nice cup of tea before sharing a chocolate muffin with my husband. The walk along the streets was filled with interest with all sorts going on, mostly daily life but immensely entertaining none the less. We saw all sorts of I amazing vehicles along the way including a little monkey bike that Vince though we should get for me!

We arrived a little before the others at the Belgian Beer Garden so we went back over the road for another look at the art work and eventually we settled on one…..but the price had shot up from the 700,000kip/LAK …..we were originally told they were all the same price, to 850,000kip/LAK ……so we said we would think about it.

Back at the lunch spot we had just got our drinks…..a beer for Vince and a special treat for me….a glass of red wine! Wine and spirits are extremely expensive here due to taxes so I often just have a soft drink….Vince insists I need to learn to like drinking beer as he never misses out…’s true….even on tiny roadside stalls where you can’t get water but you can always get beer! Sitting outside we soon spotted the boys who quickly joined us and we all enjoyed a leisurely and delicious lunch. After a second round of drinks, I decided to try to barter for the painting (not something I like doing)….Vince was all for it so off we went and I offered 600,000 this was refused but countered at 700,000 (A$116) so we agreed. They took it out of the frame for us and rolled it up I a bamboo tube….we will have to replace this to get it though Australian customs I’m sure.

We walked back to our hotel and just pottered about for the evening….we didn’t bother with any dinner as we were still full from our late lunch…..true to form we were in bed by 8.30pm….Happy New Year!

We woke up late on 1st Jan – Our First Wedding Anniversary! We had a few plans ….but the day was filled with a comedy of errors….walked miles….post office closed and we were staying at the “Faulty Towers hotel” ……no water yesterday now whaling pipes all night long! We did manage a nice, although expensive, brunch at the Indigo Terrace and a reasonable dinner at Belgian Beer Garden…..our dessert even had a sparkler in it!

Although our surroundings were pristine and magnificent, it was a less than stellar night’s sleep with the constant rush of the waterfall, lights left on in the restaurant and dining area all night and local people coming at all hours of the night and morning chatting and checking out our tent as they passed and disappeared into the Forrest.

We only had a short ride today into Luang Prabang, so we wanted a late start to the day….but any real attempt at a lay in was relatively short lived, and we found ourselves up and about by 8.00am. Between the 4 of us (Mike, Aad, Vince and I) we had a cooked breakfast of creamed rice (Mike) and fried bananas (Me) and Vince boiled water for the drinks of Ovaltine, Coffee and my last lone tea bag…or was it Diet Coke (called Coke Light here)?

We were finishing the remnants of breakfast when a couple came out of the Forrest and rested a short distance away from us, at the bottom of the hill ( this seemed to be a natural stop for all the foragers as they descended). I made eye contact with the the woman and she returned my smile. I sang out the local greeting to her which she also returned….so I grabbed my camera and headed over for some closer interaction. She spoke no English but it was soon made clear she wanted me to try out lifting her basket…very heavy! In fact with the head strap in place I couldn’t lift it, if I just used the arm straps I could but it was filled with turnip looking vegetables and very heavy! Vince and Aad tried in turn and had the same difficulty….in fact Vince looked like he was going to blow a fluffer valve and Aad looked like he was fixing to give birth… that made me feel much better about my poor attempts! We have seen many people all over Asia carrying these baskets….they start them young….children really…so I guess their neck muscles must be very well developed. We all praised the woman’s strength…flexing our biceps at her and she just laughed. The man with her joined in the interaction and it was very special to share with them.

We slowly started to dismantle our camp and drya out the inevitable condensation and dew from out tent and fly…thankfully all I broke this time was a nail not an arm!

Before we knew it lunch time had arrived and we ordered the same meals as last night…..we thought it safe as at least we knew what to expect….the menu board was in Laotian with only a few items in English and some of these simply said “Fried”…. No indication of what! Can’t remember what dinner/lunch cost us but it was reasonable…maybe 30,000 Kip/LAK.

There were quite reasonable toilets available but no showers or hot water. Vince had stayed in some cabins last time but these were not available so we just camped this time.

We finished the last few bits of packing on our bikes and were all soon back on the road after lunch for the 40km journey to Luang Prabang. The trip there was picturesque some of the way and a bit hectic in traffic at others…..just on the road into the town a scooter from a side road wasn’t watching and just shot out directly at us …….almost crashing into our right hand side but Vince managed to avoid him and I did a bit of vocalising and shaking my camera at him in disgust. Mike led us via the GPS to our original accommodation but it was fully booked out….Aad and I checked out two others nearby but they were also booked out! Vince took us to the Luang Prabang Bakery, just around the corner from where he stayed last time he was here, to use their Wifi. It had moved upmarket and was now very expensive …a Coke was 15,000 kip (usually 5,000)….but at least it let us use their wifi to try to find alternative accommodation….Vince and Mike walked to where Vince had stayed last time, but it too was booked out. We eventually found somewhere and headed a few Km out of town……it was difficult to find even from the coordinates we had…..we saw another place and stopped to check it out….they had rooms available but it was more expensive and very basic….we decided to backtrack down the road again in search of somewhere and eventually found the right one (120,000 kip/LAK per night).

After unpacking the bikes we freshened up with a hot shower…..pressure not great but it’s the first proper hot water we have had in weeks! Vince even helped me wash my hair! We even had sheets that we could use…..for weeks we have had to use our sleeping bags as the hotels have either not had sheets or towels or they have been too disgusting to use.

Dinner was at the Indian place…we road the bikes due to the distance and the traffic was manic…it reminded us of being in India…as Vince parked the bike he broke my minion but it was only his leg so we can glue that back on. It was very stressful having dinner….people kept touching the bike even after we asked them not to….again like India….we decided won’t ride in again…..both Vince and I had a really bad feeling on the road that night but luckily we were all OK.

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.

We started this morning with breakfast at “Craters”…a local cafe we had dinner at last night, that has bombs and other war stuff as decoration. However, breakfast was expensive (78,000kip) and COLD! Not wanting to make a fuss we ate up our luke warm eggs, cold bacon, and not even and attempt to heat up baked beans, and were on our way. Today was a very special one, Vince took me to see the Plain of Jars.

Along the way we saw the usual animal life of chickens, goats, cows and water buffalo. Mike and Aad had skipped breakfast and gone ahead and when the ANIMAL pulled into the Plain of Jars site 1, we were surprised to see their bikes still there. We paid our 15,000 kip each entry fee and a little golf cart took us out to the bottom of the hill leading up to the Plain of Jars.

Plain of Jars Site 1 covers 25 hectares. It has 334 jars with the biggest (Kings Cup) having a diameter of 2.5m and being 2.57m high. The area had been cleared by MAG (Mines Advisory Group) removing 127 UXO (unexploded ordnances) from the site, including bombs, rockets, artillery shells and mortars. They also removed 31,184 scrap pieces.

Laos was heavily bombed with a mission every 8 minutes, 24hrs per day for 9 years by the Americans. 580,000 bombing missions with 2 million tons, of mainly anti personnel cluster bombs were dropped on Laos. Over 270 million “bombies” were dropped, up to 30% failed to detonate so over 80 million live bombs remain undetonated. Each cluster bomb shell contained hundreds of individual bomblets or “bombies” the size of a tennis ball. There was a cluster bomb on display in the Visitor Centre and I had a hold of one of the “bombies” ….a very somber experience. Vince had told me previously that today many children pick these up and play “catch and throw” with them thinking they are a ball and then it goes off!!!!!!!!!! Tragic!

Site 1 is the most investigated of the 33 sites (only 3 have been cleared by MAG). Archaeological evidence from Neolithic to 19th Century has been uncovered. Inside the jars they found bones and teeth, and around the jars, charcoal and glass beads. Burial pits are also around each jar containing bones, teeth, metal objects, glass beads, stone and pottery. There could be in excess of 2500 burials at this site. The large white stones (quartz) serve as gravestones. It is thought that cremated remains were put into the jars, and a second option was for whole bodies to be put inside and left until just bones remained and these were then removed and buried. Lids were thought to have been of perishable material such as bamboo. The stone discs on site are not lids, but another type of grave marker. Over 2000 years of history leaves questions?

Phukeng Mountain is the sandstone and conglomerate quarry used for the stone jars. The site was a strategic military post during the 1964-1974 War and the hill still has trenches and foxholes as well as bomb craters. The Plain of Jars was thought to be a cross roads for trade. French Archaeologist, Madeleine Colani, investigated the cave in the hill and found evidence of cremation. Some people think it was a kiln to bake the stones instead. However, the evidence suggests the jars were actually carved out of stone, not made and baked.

Only one jar has a decoration….the same decoration as two stone discs in Xiang Khouang and another in Assam (India). The jars of Laos are not the only ones of this kind found…similar sites are recorded in Indonesia and North East India.

We met up with Aad and Mike, who were waiting to resolve a traffic situation, but that’s a whole other story! So all 4 of us set off together for site 2…..yet another hill climb but into a forest this time….very picturesque and tranquil. MAG cleared 17,390 sqm and cleared 26 items, with 11,770 scrap pieces found.

We went back to Phonsavan for lunch… a local cafe……with the exception of Vince, none of us thought much of our food…..bland, tasteless and not what we ordered!

Mike and Aad went off to do some food shopping whilst Vince and I went to the UXO Survivor Information Centre….we were going to see the MAG Centre but it was closed until 1.1.2016. Whilst we were there we met Chansemone, who is the Administrator for the Quality of Life Association (QLA). The Not for Profit organisation was established in 2011 and provides support to UXO Victims, their families and UXO affected communities, it operates only in Xieng Khouang province in northern Laos. We watched a video titled “Surviving Cluster Bombs in Laos”. It was very moving, and I have to say a bit distressing for me to watch. Vince and I decided we wanted to offer support in the form of making a purchase of a handcrafted item (they provided training in embroidery and weaving silk) of which 30% goes to the victim or their family. We chose a beautiful woven silk tablecloth. We also decided to make a donation which helps in any of the following ways: Annual education supplies for primary school, Grant for primary school including uniform, backpack and bike, Grant for secondary school, Annual cost to attend university in Vientiane, Costs to study weaving at the Laos Disabled Women’s Development Centre, Costs for medical care, Costs for children’s discussion group (psychosocial support), Livestock (chickens, pigs, goats etc) and Vaccines for Livestock (training is given).

In addition we purchased a copy of the DVD, which I want to share with the Perth Motorbike and Sidecar Meetup Group….in the hope to raise some funds for the association when I get back home. More people need to be made aware of how UXO are affecting innocent people’s lives, especially children (40% of all casualties in the past decade are children).

Back at our hotel we ran into an Irishman called Mick (44yrs), who gave us good “Crack” on the courting procedures in Laos (apparently that is what the traditional dress and ball throwing we have seen is all about) as well as his recent engagement to a girl from Laos (a whirlwind romance of just 2 months), she can’t speak English and is only 20 years old….best of luck to them.

Aad and Mike joined us for dinner at Nisha’s (Indian), where Vince had eaten on his previous trip and could highly recommend it, and then we went to the ATM…. as we had spent most of our money today and need to sort out our accommodation bill in the morning before we move on….

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.

Viengxay Cave Tour

Today Aad and Mike have decided not to join us in a tour of the local caves….they will head South instead and we will catch up with them in the next few days.

So after a breakfast of banana pancakes at the Indian place where we had dinner last night, Vince and I walked back to the hotel to see the boys off….including the three sided kiss goodbye they do in the Netherlands! We quickly got ready in our bike gear and headed off to the Cave Visitor Centre in time for the 9.00am tour (the next one isn’t until 1.00pm).

It was raining so we got a bit damp but most of the time we were inside the caves. We had to be careful as there were sloppy muddy inclines as well as thick slippery moss to content with. The audio guide was very informative and included testimonies from people who were actually involved at the time. I found it very sad but a unique opportunity to share an essential part of the history of Laos.

Viengxay is a small town located in the northern part of Laos, just 52km from the Vietnamese border. Houaphanh province hosts magnificent limestone mountains which include natural caves that were extended by hand and dynamite for people to hide inside during the bombing of Laos. From 1964 to 1973, over 400 caves sheltered more than 20,000 Lao nationalists offering protection from the heaviest bombing ever carried out in history. More bombs were dropped on Laos by the Americans than were dropped on all of Europe in WWII, at a cost of 2 million dollars per day! The Pathet Lao people developed an underground city complete with a hospital, school, shops, government offices, a bakery, a printshop, radio station and even a theatre. It is considered the birthplace and spiritual home of the Lao PDR.

Today, Viengxay is a small remote town frequented by many Western bicycle or motorbike riders, there are hot springs close by as well as many small villages with differing ethnic groups (Tai daeng, Yao, Kamu, Hmong) and some of the finest silk and cotton weaving you will ever see!

The cave tour we took today is part of a joint project by the Laos Government with European donor assistance to bring development to this very poor and remote region through sensitive tourism development. The audio tour was developed and managed by a private Australian company  and ends with these words:

“The war is still having its effect on children born decades after the conflict ended. UXO – unexploded ordnance (that didn’t detonate when fired or dropped) – contaminates the whole country and prevents people from using land. UXO might be hidden under a school playing field or a house, or in fields…. When they are disturbed, by digging or often by children picking them up and playing with them, they explode.” It is estimated that UXO kills and injures one person a day, every day in Laos and that it will take another 20 years to clear them.”

The price we paid (60,000 Kip each, A$10) for our tour funds guide training, research and conservation of the caves and the artefacts. This directly contributes to the historical conservation of the site, and helps get the people of Houaphanh out of poverty. So we were happy to have helped out just a little bit!

What can I say….we are in Laos, a Buddhist country……so Christmas is literally a non event here……I tried to download a Christmas Movie from iTunes to watch last night but the wifi is useless so that was no good! Apart from a few messages on our Facebook and our quick telephone calls to family in Australia today….we wouldn’t even know it was Christmas. We just spent a quiet day in the hotel… it poured with rain, was freezing cold…….so nothing much going on here!

We had a late lay in ….sleeping last night was difficult in this disgusting room (it hadn’t been cleaned, bathroom was filthy with cigarette butts in the shower, and we found a condom in our bed – thankfully unused but no less offensive….GROSS…..we had three people try to come into our room after midnight……so we had very interrupted sleep and were very tired!

We had a late breakfast of scrambled eggs and beans cooked on our Dragonfly, we skipped lunch and dinner was with Aad and Mike at a local Indian place…the only restaurant we have found here.

Just another day in paradise!

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 🙂