Day 197 to 203 – Goodbye Laos – Hello Cambodia

Day 197
Oct 19th
(Nr) Khinak to Don Khong (largest island of the 4000 islands group).

Ginette – We’ve decided to change the diary format this week, I normally write the diary and Gary adds his comments, this week Gary will write the diary and I will add my comments. It will be interesting to see if this affects the style or mood of the diary.

Gary;
Only a short 8 mile ride left today after the long endurance battle of yesterday.
Headed to what we thought would be a boat crossing to the island and ended up cycling over a new bridge built 2014, this bridge doesn’t feature on my maps or any research we have done so it was a bit disappointing but obviously far easier than having to take a ferry.
On the island the roads are much narrower than the major route 13 we have been following since Thakek, so this was a nice change.
We are now in the main town Muang Khong. When I say main you need to picture a small village with scattered stick houses and a cluster of homestays all next to each over to cater for us tourists.

Ginette has had an IT day today, loads to catch up on and the weekly blog to download, I went off on another little cycle trip. Muang Khong is in the lower middle west side of the island, I took a ride up to the top of the island however when I reached the top some genius had a built another road bridge onto the next island Don San, so now I had to cycle to top of this island as well, it being the last island in the group.
As soon as I was over the bridge the road stopped and a dry dirt rutted track started. I followed this track alongside the Mekon River, it was not in a good condition but there were the odd motorbikes passing me so I knew it was still a used route. I passed through some villages in real close proximity as the narrow track passed there dwellings, it felt really rustic but I was being greeted with the usual “Saibaidee” and also lots of English hellos, how are you, where are you from, and even one “I love you” from an embarrassed teenage girl. I eventually came to end of the island after the track had became a single file path through a field and into some woods and was treated to an uninterrupted view up the Mekong which I shared with a couple of cows.

The journey back was hard work, all the fun had on the way out was not as good coming back and by now I was pretty tired, in the end I had done a round trip of 25 miles.

On route I spotted temple with two large statues, one man and one women with large paddles in there hands. I also spotted some dragon boats stored under a large shed but couldn’t get close enough to view them properly.

On my return I found Ginette with beer in hand enjoying a chat with a Texan/Indian who is travelling on his own, a nice guy (Rama) one of the 1st American back papers we have bumped into.

Ginette – I spent most of the morning in the room as that was the only place to get a decent IT connection. I’d hoped to download some yoga poses and the Pink Floyd album (which I don’t think Ive heard but has been recommended lots) but the connection wasn’t strong enough. After 2 hours in the room I decided to head across the road for a beer in the sun by the Mekong – very nice it was too.

It was very quiet in the bar/restaurant so I had plenty of time to watch the family who owned the restaurant and the home stay we were staying in. It was interesting watching them interacting with their two small children both under 5 years of age. There were about 6 adults doing different tasks but they all seemed responsible for the children. It would have been difficult at first glance to pick out their mum and dad, everyone seemed to naturally be involved in raising the kids unlike in the UK where the parents carry the full responsibility.

P,s If any other weary travellers ever read this blog you may like to know that there are now two ATM’s in Muang Khong.

Day 198; Don Khong to Don Det, 4000 islands.

Ginette

As we laid in bed discussing where we would be going we agreed the world would be a better place if I redesigned the planet for example from a selfish point of view I’m a little bored of South East Asia so it would be great if I could move California and put it between Laos and Cambodia and before we move on to Thailand I would like to cycle through Wales (I would duplicate Wales lots and put it all over the world just because it is beautiful) …whilst I’m at it I could move all countries in conflict with each other so we could have world peace…if only it was that easy

Gary;
I was not sure if the route planned today to Don Det was possible, my maps show no connecting road on Don Som but we have seen two other blogs from people that have managed the trip, plus yesterdays little jaunt up north also had no roads or bridges so hopes were high.

Ginette
I’m not sure I would have consented to this route if I’d known there was no road, at best there was a mud track in places.

Gary
Set off south and reached the ferry crossing to Don Som, the ferry is a couple of canoe hulls joined together with planking, a motorbike was already waiting on the ferry to cross so as soon as we were loaded we were on our way, this cost us 15000 kip (£1.20).
On Don Som there was only a wet muddy track to follow, and it didn’t improve for the rest of this island. We crossed rickety wood plank bridges, cycled between paddy fields on single track paths, cycled and waded through two streams approx 12” deep. I loved this route unlike Ginette. However at one point on a grass track Ginette stated that this was better than the earlier muddy tracks, so I have now interpreted this as Ginette like cycling on grass tracks so I need to find some more!

Ginette
I really don’t like riding on off road routes, there really was no road at all for the whole island of 1,000 inhabitants and 13 villages. I find it much harder than Gary because I have cleats so it is not so easy to release my feet when the bike starts to slide in addition my shorts have become so baggy that every time I tried to get on my seat I’d catch the material and land on my crutch ouch!

Gary
The route again was very rustic and with close proximity to the locals homes. We passed a temple where some youngsters were being schooled and they rushed to the entrance to come see us. We stopped for a drink as even in these rural areas there are still the odd shops around, the owner spoke very good English and informed us that he had been taught English in Vietenne. he now lives and runs this shop with his wife and 3 year old daughter, he was actually born and bred just 3 miles away in another village on the island.
Ginette
It was a really hot day and we both got a bit of sunburn but the ride was made easier by the friendly villagers who seemed genuinely happy to see the foreigners.

Gary
We eventually found our way to a ferry (which I am very pleased was running as getting back was not a good option) the same type of canoe hull ferry trip this time for 20000 kip (£1.60).

We are now in Don Det, a popular destination with backpackers so although we are out of season there are plenty of westerners around. we have a room here for 50000kip (£4)

Ginette
On arrival in Don Det we met several backpackers who were interested in our journey so we agreed to stay in the ‘party’ section of Don Det so that we could exchange stories over drinks in the evening.

The first accommodation we looked at was naff and over priced, we have opted for a cheap room without air conditioner I hope this was not a mistake. It is a little basic we don’t even have towels.

As I write this we are in a bar come restaurant opposite our room with views across the Mekong I have a mint/lemon sorbet and Gary has a chocolate milkshake, we can see kittens and a puppy playing on the floor and the sun is just about to go down how chilled can you get?

In the evening we went up to Adam’s bar where we’d agreed to meet some of the people we’d met during the day. Don Det is supposed to be a party island instead we found a lot of backpackers laying on cushions on the floor watching Notting Hill. It was hard not to watch the DVD (it is an excellent film) but we managed to have a conversation with the guy sitting next to us. He had been on the island for 18 months and had purchased several bungalows and a massage parlour. He’d initially come to see his friend who owned a bar and after 2 weeks went home, sold everything, gave up his job as an optician and went back to Don Det. He explained it was quite because it was low season. We went for an Indian meal and returned later in the evening, several of the people we’d seen during the day were in the bar but they were all watching a horror movie. We decided to pass and walked back to our hotel in the dark, which meant getting very muddy feet.

It was a really hot and uncomfortable night, it might cost a little more for air con but it is a must for these temperatures.

Day 199; Don Det, 4000 islands to mainland Nakasong.

Gary;
Ran out of money again I had withdrawn 500,000 kip (£40) which usually lasts a few days but Don Det and the ferries worked out a bit more pricy, only a small price increase in food and drink but it soon all adds up. There is no ATM on the island, there is a bar where you can withdraw money from their till (a bag wrapped around there belly) but its a 6% charge so 1,000,000kip (£80) costs 60,000 kip (£6), the other way is to boat to mainland and back, this will cost 40,000 each way.

With some research it appears that another hotel on Don Khon the next island down also does this cash system and we had planned to move onto this quieter island, however after riding the short distance and over the old railway bridge another couple on cycles stopped and walked down some steps to pay 25,000 kip each to get on the island. If it had not been for this we would have not noticed and would have cycled on without paying, but now we had a dilemma as we had stopped, if I payed we have no cash left at all plus I was not happy at all to pay to get on another island. We turned back to Don Det to find either a boat or more cash.
We opted for the boat over to the mainland and we are now millionaires again.

We are in Nakasong, not many tourists stay here as they all tend to cross straight to the islands, Ginette is not a happy bunny, she had lots of reasons for feeling down (Bored, same old sights, same shit hotels) so it looks like we are need of a break so at present I am not sure what tomorrow will bring.

the plan had been to stay on Don Khone but they wanted to charge us to enter the islands so we decided to leave and go to the main land

Ginette
I was a little cheesed off although I agreed with the principle of not paying to stay on Don Khone it meant we would not be having the couple of days relaxation I desperately needed.

I was a little tearful and frustrated that we would be moving on again without much of a rest. I spent some time on my own and after some reflection I think I’m a little burnt out, not physically but mentally.

We have been on the road for 6 months the majority of time has been spent on the bike, planning routes for the bikes or sight seeing. We’ve had very few days where we’ve done nothing. Gary loves this way of life but I just feel a sensory overload and a bit of a spectator (I see so many things that could be improved but feel disempowered to do anything i.e. watching mothers putting condensed milk in children’s bottles, which we know in the West leads to them having rotten teeth) . In addition I’ve got to the point where everything looks the same and the idea of visiting another temple, statute or religious building does nothing for me.

I miss so many things including family, being in control, using my brain, talking to friends, feeling needed, valued and having a purpose. I have read lots of other peoples blogs and I have been relieved to read that this is not an unusual feeling and lots of people simply get bored and describe travelling almost like having a job, and just like a job after 6 months, the novelty wears off and you want to change aspects of the job or leave. With this in mind and following a long discussion with Gary (puppy who is happy as long as he’s doing something all of the time) we’ve decided to take two days out. This will allow me time to relax and recharge my batteries. It will also allow me some time to do some research on Cambodia not just where we’re going and practical issues like currency but real research. I did this when we went to Turkey and enjoyed the country so much more for doing so.

I have looked at other options i.e. volunteering or moving on to another non asian country but neither appeal so I need to find a way to make this work for both of us. Gary has been great but it’s not fair on him if I’m not enjoying it, although I don’t whinge (much) my face is apparently like an open book and Gary can tell I’m not enjoying the experience. The daft thing is when I break it down, I enjoy being on the bike, I love the people and I am looking forward to Cambodia (our next stop) I just need something to stimulate my brain and time out so I don’t become complacent and ungrateful, this is an amazing adventure and I want to enjoy it not feel like it is a chore.
Day 200; Nakasong back to Don Khong.
We have opted to cycle back 15 miles to the 1st island we stayed on, it has less young backpackers and has a larger area for me to cycle tour around while Ginette has a break.
on the way we stopped for breakfast at a huge restaurant with a stage and banquet hall, we were the only customers. A dog took a dislike to Ginette, it sniffed her ass then walked off tail between its legs growling, it kept creeping towards her again still growling but in a feeble manner not an aggressive way.

Ginette
babies and now dogs – I really need to change my perfume or face lol

On the island again via the road bridge we are staying at the same hotel as last time as Ginette felt some loyalty to them, then the guy tried to charge us 100,000 when we last paid 80,000 and even tried to short change me as well, so much for loyalty.

Ginette
we negotiated the 80,000 kip rate and threw loyalty out of the window and had lunch and dinner in different restaurants, whereas on our previous stay we’d eaten in the hotel’s restaurant.

Gary
In the afternoon I set up the tent on a large area of grass near a football pitch, I set up the Omni stove and made a cuppa. We think we are likely to be camping a bit more in Cambodia so wanted to check out the kit. I was really surprised at the lack of attention I got from the locals, no one batted an eyelid at the western bloke camping and cooking by the road, the only interested parties were other tourists.

I have had to buy diesel for the omni stove so need to light it as last time it was a bit of an effort to get it going, this time though as I had time on my hands it was an easy process. Apparently the best fuel is Kerosene but I cant find this anywhere, whereas diesel is everywhere.

We met Tony and Beth and 2 Check ladies and had a nice evening drinking eating and exchanging stories. Tony and Beth lead a nomadic lifestyle in there home of New Zealand and also very well travelled so made for really good company.

Ginette
I had hoped to spend the day reading, downloading information including a couple of yoga routines and instead Gary invited me for a drink at 11.00am, which led to an afternoon doze and drinks again at 4.30 which led to a lovely evening with Tony, Beth and friends. This meant I didn’t achieve my goals but did feel very chilled, I was all for joining a dutch group at the end of the evening but Gary was tired so we headed back to our hotel, I did consider going on my own but I’d had a pint or two and realised it probably wasn’t a good idea.

Day 201, Thu 22nd Oct; Rest day, Don Khong.

Gary;
I cleaned both bikes and all the panniers this morning. a very rare treat for them.
I took a short ride over to the west side of the island this was 5 miles along a covered but pot holed road past cultivated land and a few stilt houses. On the west coast junction with the Mekon was a small town with a large market area and a few shops in dusty mud streets, there is also a ferry port.
I looked at a few sun glasses as mine are broken but could see any I liked despite all the dust and cobwebs that had been allowed to gather over all the goods.
I tried to treat myself to an ice cream but the shop owner had locked the freezer and couldn’t find the key. I also tried to buy some light oil like WD40 but no one was interested in helping, they really haven’t mastered customer service over here.
I finished the ride by looping around the bottom of the island.

Ginette
I had a more productive day, finished my girly chick flick book, read several chapters of my Cambodia travel book, downloaded some yoga poses to improve my upper body, and did some practical things in preparation for Cambodia i.e. write down money conversions and phrases.

Gary
Socialising today in the restaurants with the few westerners has been nice, we met 2 English girls in their late 20’s one of which uses a wheelchair, its hard enough coping with the differences of culture for us so we were impressed with her go get it attitude, on a side note, we have seen very few wheel chairs here and in some cases we have seen locals struggling down the road doubled over were they can no longer stand straight that would benefit from a wheelchair but only if the roads could be improved.
we also met an Aussie couple Lin and Rob, Rob is a keen cyclist and they are well travelled so made for great company
Ginette
I’ve really enjoyed the passed couple of days, talking to other English speaking people and sharing travel experiences, I feel a little more positive and energised for the next 6 months on the road.

Cambodia
Day 202, Fri 23nd Oct; Don Khong to Stung Treng, 63 miles.
Breakfast two boiled eggs and half a baguette each – this is an important fact for todays diary.
Cycled south on the boring but well covered route 13 towards the Laos Cambodian border, on route we saw a sign and LH turn for the large Mekon waterfall that we missed out on seeing as we didn’t go onto Don Khone island, we took the detour but at the gate they wanted to charge us 55,000 kip each, its only about £5 each but we have a real problem today, the ATM on Don Khong didn’t work so we are running on vapours so to speak on our ready cash. All was not lost as we had spotted another turning 50 yards up the road, we took this and was able to view the top of the rapids for nothing (however Ginette was accosted to have a little prayer which cost 1000 kip (16p) and a beggar lady also had 1000 kip of us.

We have heard horror stories about this border crossing, $2 exit fee,$2 entrance fee, $1 dollar heath check plus the $35 dollar visa charge (all each), with the cash we had we could get out of Laos but not into Cambodia if all these extra charge hit us.

Step1; exit stamp from Laos costing $2 each, however we had to pay with kip, and they managed to fiddle the exchange rate so they charged os 20,000 each instead of the 16,000 kip, this really left us in the mire,
Step 2; A desk in no mans land for a health check, fill in forms and show your yellow vaccination card, no charge (just as well).
Step 3. Visa wooden hut.
fill in more forms hand over passport and passport photo (extra charge if you don’t have a photo) and pay your $35 each (we had this cash as we knew this charge existed).
Step 4, immigration wooden shack.
fill in the same forms again, hand over the passports again, no charge (hooray, we are in)

This process is not really that bad, and we were lucky to be crossing at the same time as a bus of tourists turned up, it slowed the process down for us but we was prepared to beg the extra dollars from them if it turned out we needed them, but this did feel like we had cut our odds to the bone.

So horray another new country – boo look at the state of those roads and double boo we have no Cambodian money, only 26,000 kip and we still have 32 miles to cycle.

During our visa ritual bumped into our American friend again, he is making his way by bus straight to Phon Phenn.

So the afternoon riding was hot, 37 degrees, along dusty compact mud roads with the occasional deep ruts and three foot high ridges, and the even more occasional stretches of tarmac.

Ginette
Although the road was challenging and very dusty the children still ran out to say hello, much to our surprise in perfect english and as we went by they waved and shouted goodbye. They’re so excited it is contagious.

The Cambodian’s we’ve seen so far look more Indian than Chinese however the girls have matted, thick hair unlike Indians with straight black hair. None of the girls/women are wearing the Laos skirt in fact many are wearing pyjamas.

As with other towns near the border crossings the houses were of really poor quality, wooden houses on stilts but unlike Laos which used weaved bamboo for roofs and shelter these houses simply have straw roofs not thatched just straw clumped together poorly to provide shade and cover from the rain.

There’s was a very dirty river to the right of us as we were cycling down route 13 but other than that the fields were beautiful and green. There were a number of crops growing but it did not look like these had been planted in a systematic way, lots of different sized plants within the same area, with no identifiable sections.
Gary
So now for food and drink, 32 miles 37 degrees and no money, we managed to buy some water with our kip just over the border.
We also found a place that would sell us 2 bags of crisps, water and a red bull again with our little wad of kip.
The last stop we tried to buy water with the remaining kip but she wouldn’t serve us, however one of the 4 guys sitting drinking beer bought us two bottles of water, and when he saw how quick we sunk them he bought us another two, we wasn’t really desperate and could have managed but this kind gesture bodes well for the rest our Cambodian adventure.

We are now in Stung Trung, a market town by the Mekon, and we are now in possession of cash (the machine spurted out Dollars?). Ginette had a bit of a moment and was really close to fainting in the ATM (This may be due to the lack of stops, food and heat from today, or it could be due to the fact that she is taking over the running of the money and she went into shock at the ATM).

Ginette
I felt fine cycling and getting off my bike, but as I stood waiting for the ATM, the world starting to look a little hazy and I felt a little woozy, I put it down to the heat and found some shade, but as I entered the ATM cabin and tried to use the machine I couldn’t see the numbers, my heart was pounding so I sat down and banged on the window for Gary. I could feel the colour had left my face and I had red blotches over my body. Very strange feeling but I felt better once we checked into the hotel and even better when we had some food. I think it was probably just a mixture of too much heat and not enough food and drink. But Gary is right I am in a little bit of shock that I am in charge of the money and we now have the Cambodian Riel. I’ve done my homework but I did not factor in the fact that the country uses both the American dollar and Riel interchangeably.

Gary
We have also had a hearty Indian meal finally at 7pm, which was our first meal since we had our two egg sandwiches for breakfast and two packs of crips, not the best preparation for a 63 mile ride.

Day 203, Sat 24th Oct; Stung Treng to Krattie by bus.
The road to Krattie is 85 miles with no guesthouse so we decided to go by bus for $20, the bus left at 1pm so we had a relaxing morning.

We arrived early and found the white beat up mini bus, they had to take a motorbike off the back door which had been tied on (no fancy bike carries here) so we could load our cycles in the boot, they then had to re-tie the motorbike on. None of this seemed a problem to them and they hjust all worked together with a get it done attitude (I can imagine the moaning in the UK if we tried to do the same).

Ginette
This bus would never have passed an MOT in the UK the windscreen was cracked in several places but the driver was really friendly and had some basic English. The motorbike Gary referred to was a young father’s he was transporting his wife and new born baby back to their village. The road would have been too uncomfortable for a woman who had just given birth she looked really uncomfortable as she got off the bus. Also on the bus was a young man who spent the whole 2 1/2 journey on his phone, there were also several women on board wearing knitted hats, I can only imagine this was to protect their heads from head lice because it was baking hot on the bus. One of the women also wore a face mask to protect herself from germs and the dust.

Gary
We had heard tales of the bad road conditions and excepted the worse after yesterdays experience but in fact the road is now very good, the only rough and bouncy bits was by the River Mekong when we turned off the main highway.

Ginette
The bus stopped several times on route, once to pay a policeman, we’re not sure what for, but it looked like a fine of some sort and once to pick up some crates to transport to Krattie.

It was clear to see from our journey our poor rural Cambodia is, the houses were really basic – see the photos. As it was hot most people were seeking shade from the sun, for a lot of people this meant playing and sitting under their houses. In a number of the villages the locals had erected a rope between trees and posts so that the locals could play volleyball.

We sore lots of children playing in the street and by the river but we also sore a lot of children cleaning and helping with kitchen chores including using very sharp knives to cut vegetables, one of the children couldn’t have been 5 years old!

The Cambodians seem a little quicker to hit their children than in other countries we’ve passed through. I sore several older children and adults administering smacks and pushes to younger children.

Gary
Kratie is another big market town but has more hotels and restaurants than Stung Trung. More tourists come to visit here as there are some attractions, the main one is the River Dolphins which we hope we get a glimpse of tomorrow.

Ginette
We attracted a crowd when we arrived in Kratie, several men who intrigued by our bikes and stopped to watch us put them together.

Kratie bus station was very dirty but fortunately the main town is a little cleaner.

Before dinner we stopped to watch the sun go down over the Mekong River, on our way back to the hotel we saw some men playing a football type game with what looked like a big shuttle cock. We also saw a child with her mother on a motorbike with an IV drip with her.

Gary
We had a nice evening in which three groups of came together in the same bar. English, Italian, French and Norwegian (I am sure there must be a joke in there somewhere) the Englishman was working in Siam Reap and has also worked in Kratie he has been in Cambodia for 6 months. The Norwegian couple have like us taken a year off to travel so we had a good night.