Drive Around The World (Australia)

One family, one car, one year, one planet

Ayutthaya, Thailand – Tha Thom, Laos, Day 286 – 298, 20 January – 4 February, 2009

Ayutthaya, Thailand – Tha Thom, Laos

Day 286 – 298

20 January – 4 February, 2009

1,788km

Total: 28,283km

Soundtrack:

‘Is It Just Me?’ – Wendy Harmer and Angela Catterns

‘Bombtrack’ – Rage Against the Machine

‘Stay On Track’ – Deborah Conway

‘The Dirty Boogie’ – Brian Setzer

‘Little Time Bomb’ – Billy Bragg

‘US Forces’ – Midnight Oil

‘Theme from the Dirtbombs’ – The Dirtbombs

‘Many Rivers to Cross’ – Jimmy Cliff

‘Diesel and Dust’ – Midnight Oil

‘Three-Five-Zero-Zero’ – Hair

‘Purple Haze’ – Jimi Hendrix

SK: It was with big hugs and sadness that we separated from our friends. We had enjoyed a fabulous beach holiday together; a hiatus in both our trips that nourished us.

We retraced our route north up the number 4 highway, headed for the former royal city of Ayutthaya. After a roadside stop for fishball soup for lunch, we negotiated our way around Bangkok (except for one glitch that had us heading back into, rather than away from, the city), and soon left the built up world behind.

img_5010

(Pic: Obama Fever is everywhere! Ayutthaya, Thailand)

It took a while to adjust to the local signage – every country has its own idiosyncrasies in terms of what information is available about upcoming towns and routes – but we found our way to the western bridge over the Mae Nam Chao Phraya. This river is one of the three that surround the city, providing impressive access for trade and commerce when Ayutthaya was at its peak.

How many times can one find “what wat is what?” funny? Well, Maddy still does. So we bought her a guide to the dozens of wats of Ayutthaya, made her study it, and visited as many as we could in the short time we had there. On our way out of town, we stopped at the Elephant Kraal, the historic site where roundups took place centuries ago. Nearby is now the Elephant Palace and Royal Kraal, a home for working and retired elephants. We were thrilled to be up close to these beautiful pachyderms. Funnily enough, we were as fascinated with the animals as the European and American volunteers were with our truck. Four legs – four wheels; a truck – a snorkel. And almost the same size!

img_50271

(Pic: Raffy gets ahead, Ayutthaya, Thailand)

After leaving Ayutthaya, we were finally into what felt like rural Thailand proper. Bound in the direction of the Thai-Laos border, we drove along small back roads, though tiny villages, past large schools, farmland and orchards. Over yet another fishball lunch by the road, Danny outlined our trip to the curious young woman who had served us.

We stopped overnight in the regional hub of Chaiyapum, coming in at the end of what looked like a big festival. Missed it by a day, but still reaped the rewards of the local street market.

img_5046

(Pic: Raffy gets a tickle from the cheekiest of baby elephants, Ayutthaya, Thailand)

We were only hours away from the border, and travelling now through undulating country. We wondered what if any impact the Bangkok airport closures and changes within government had had on the people in this rural area, so far removed from the politics and machinations of the city.

After finding our guesthouse in Nong Khai, we sat on the deck overlooking the mighty Mekong, and had our first look at Laos, across the brown, slow moving river.

img_5050

(Pic: The volunteers wanted to know about us, but we wanted to know about the elephants, Ayutthaya, Thailand)

DB: Our shortest drive of the trip followed, with a 34km jaunt across the Friendship Bridge, funded and built by the Australian government. Customs and carnet stamping were no great hindrance, with Sandy essentially telling government representatives on both sides what they needed to stamp and sign. We could have continued further north into Laos, but before we knew it we were in the capital, Vientiane.

Change over driving sign, Vientiane, Laos

(Pic: A weird ‘figure 8’ system moves drivers from the left to the right of the road when crossing into Laos)

If we thought that rural Thailand was sleepy, Vientiane – ostensibly the busiest place in Laos – was positively and happily comatose. The French had left rather hastily but in their wake were wide boulevards, francophone architecture, coffee and baguettes. While a little dishevelled, Vientiane felt warm and inviting.

We eventually found our guesthouse of choice and made ourselves at home. Laos, as we would soon discover, was a geographic wonder that provided chronological signposts that indicated periods of significance and upheaval. For example, old street names that lent themselves to deposed royalty were unceremoniously changed, and changed again. We cruised what should have been our street for twenty minutes or so looking for our guesthouse and finally stopped and asked for directions, discovering that it was on an entirely different street – recently renamed.

The guesthouse boasted a proud yet dusty library of not only standard dog-eared airport schlock but an amazing collection of cold war-era references that were a delight to behold and perhaps a snub at the prevailing regime: The Boy’s Life Book Of Baseball Stories – 1943-1962; Foreign Trade Statistics of Thailand, 1978; New Yorker Magazine, 1982; Pick’s Currency Yearbook, 1957.

img_5083

(Pic: Sunset over the Mekong, Vientiane, Laos)

We took our time meandering the streets, wandering through the most polite, quiet and orderly market I had seen to date, past imposing government buildings with names like “Department For The Strategic Development Of Regional Policy Engagement And Administrative Management Strategy”, or some such, and eating exceptionally well. The Lao National Museum was an excellent example of post-communist revolution hodge-podge that seamlessly mixed local craft and geology with the Grand And Unsurpassed Victories Over The Capitalist Infidels.

While eating beautifully grilled fresh fish while watching the sun set over the Mekong was a highlight, so too was our visit to COPE (www.copelaos.org). This NGO seeks to support victims of injuries from still-live munitions that litter the landscape, as well as raise awareness of the insidiousness of some of the best of modern science and engineering whose sole purpose is to maim and kill people. It was here that the magnitude of the secret bombing of Laos became real. While it took the Americans years to admit that they had even heard of the place, Laos retains the invidious gold medal for the most bombed country per capita in the world. And, as it is so often the case, it was – and is – the people who don’t really give a flying fornication for politics, revolutions or domino effects who suffer the most. It is estimated that some eighty-million (read that number again, folks) UXOs (Unexploded Ordinance) remain active on or just below the surface of the Lao earth, which, when partnered with a community eager to till the soil to grow food and collect scrap metal for cash, leads to horrific results. Some people are of the belief that you can use the explosives as a quick fishing technique, while small children often find the small, tennis ball-shaped “bombies” attractive playthings. Efforts are being made to clear land, but as you can imagine it is dangerous, painstaking and expensive work. Importantly, while vast tracks of land that were once the lifeblood of village life remain out of bounds, many people languish in poverty. More than 75 per cent of people in the Laos People’s Democratic Republic scrape by on US$2 a day or less.

img_5151

(Pic: Maddy organising our great night market dinner of grilled fish, Vientiane, Laos)

Our visit to COPE and the ensuing conversations had a profound effect on us, and in particular our children. Maddy was particularly moved by the stories of children who suffered injury or death, and the simple unfairness of it all, while Raffy, poignantly and succinctly asked, “Why does there have to be wars?” Try and answer that question without accusing everyone of being idiots or invoking fear of the big, bad world.

SK: We explored some of the wats of Vientiane, accompanied by Maddy still asking her classic joke. We’ll see how many we can get though before it stops being funny. In Haw Pha Kaeo, Raffy tallied up the different positions of the hundreds of Buddhas. In Wat Si Saket, Maddy started counting the alleged 10,000 Buddhas, but gave up. We checked the sharpness of Naga teeth, and marvelled at beautiful murals. We also visited the revered Wat Phra Luang, whose image graces many a tourist brochure for the country. To keep us refreshed, in between temples and museums and pounding the dusty sidewalks, we consumed copious amounts of coconut juice, watermelon shakes, and the ubiquitous Beerlao.

img_5103

(Pic: Pha That Luang, Vientiane)

DB: We were also made aware of the Lao desire for increasing development and modernisation, and, in particular, their invitations to the Chinese to help out. To this end, we were reliably informed, with all the talk of increased trade and investment, Laos agreed to accept a staggering one million Chinese workers in exchange. And, even if Laos’ population is relatively thin on the ground, comparatively, if that’s not cause for serious concern for a country of just 6.5 million people, apparently the Chinese ‘renegotiated’ the terms of the arrangement after it was a done deal and decided that all of those one million workers would head directly to Vientiane. That, and the enormous pressure to access Laos’ pristine river systems and other natural resources to feed energy-hungry neighbours seems to hint at a potential environmental and social disaster waiting to happen. We hope the Lao authorities can see it coming, too.

After a couple of nights we headed north and entered the Lao countryside within minutes of leaving downtown Vientiane. We were now on dual carriageway roads dotted with cars, trucks, utes, motor-scooters, animals and cycles, all moving in slow motion. It was here we were introduced to the infamous Laconic Lao Traffic Merge Manoeuvre.

img_5120

(Pic: We wondered about moving in to one of the many crumbling French colonial mansions in Vientiane, Laos)

Road Rule Number One in Laos is Never Be Concerned About What’s Coming From Behind. This might be influenced by the lingering communist dictum of To Infinity and Beyond, or something, or even a wholehearted faith in future incarnations, as it was explained to me once, but to turn right into any thoroughfare the only thing you need to do is turn your steering wheel or handle bars. If there’s something hurtling towards you from behind, then surely they will go around you or slow down to give you room. At first I thought it was a put on. “Surely,” I would mutter, “you’re not really going to turn in front of me.” And surely they would. Always and often. The rule is extended to dawdling along at turtle speed in the middle of the road. Not in the middle of a lane, but the road, where there would usually be painted white lines.

While motorised scooters are plentiful in Asia, it seems they are the main mode of transport in Laos regardless of a rider’s age or purpose. Entire families crowd on to the tiny things, kids ride them to school and farmers and tradespeople transport the most unlikely cargo by either sitting on the handle of a hand cart and towing the cart along or simply holding on to the timber/piping/baskets/animals with one hand or over a shoulder, and tootling along. The mostly Chinese-made scooters have tiny motors of 125cc all the way down to sewing-machinesque 50cc that sound less like a motorbike and more like a bunch of cicadas on a hot summer’s evening, which is fine in town, but on highways it means four-wheeled traffic may be speeding at twice or even three times a scooter’s speed. When they travel two a three abreast and veer into your path without looking, it makes for even whiter knuckles.

Another rural Asian phenomenon is the mini walking tractor/plough/cart/people mover. Essentially a small diesel engine with a light at the front mounted on two wheels and with handlebars akin to reins, it is designed to walk behind when ploughing fields, but canny Asian innovation now means this beast is used by farmers for everything from tilling the rice paddy to taking the extended family to the market. What it also means, of course, is that they are even slower and more unwieldy on the road than a Chinese scooter.

img_5753

(Pic: The ubiquitous walking Tractor, Laos)

Of course, there’s always a yang to the slowcoach’s yin, and in Laos it is the local dignitary who must simply get around in a flashy four-wheel-drive, at 120km/h, in the middle of the road, with a screaming police escort. Why they are in such a hurry we’ll never know – maybe it’s because there’s a problem with the parquetry floors being laid in their new, massive mansion up on the hill. And I was told that George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ is still banned here.

So, between walking tractors, puttering scooters, almost as sluggish trucks and utes, speeding politicians and the cast of Babe on the roads it makes for interesting driving, to say the least.

Vang Vieng seems to only exist because it’s one bus ride from the capital and another further north to Luang Prabang, and is the proud owner of a dirty big wartime Air America airfield in the middle of town that now sometimes a small corner is used as a marketplace and for the rest of the time shimmers in the baking heat as a reminder of the excesses of a misguided western foreign policy. Or, alternatively, Vang Vieng could be described as backpacker hell. It seemed everyone out and about were ‘farang’ – foreigners. We parked our truck on the main drag – a dirt track lined with a few shop stalls, restaurants and guesthouses – and found a place overlooking the river for lunch. The truck created some interest, with some Australians raising their eyebrows and smiling, Americans and Europeans scratched their heads, and the Israelis not giving it a second glance, because nothing impresses Israelis.

img_5163

(Pic: Vang Vieng, Laos)

This is the place where buff and near-naked twenty-somethings with monotonous faux Celtic and shoulder-blade butterfly tattoos come to experience the true essence of a reclusive, modest, devout and congenial culture by hanging out at riverside pubs getting rat-arsed on Beerlao (which is surprisingly good) and other assorted versions of wowy sauce (Lao-Lao – rice moonshine, sometimes tolerable, usually not), jiggling to bad music, cheering like a soccer crowd and jumping in the river. Never mind that we are told that Lao people are rather discreet and reserved – strip down to your shorts to walk along the main street and party on. Our visit coincided with the iconic Big Day Out concert happening in Melbourne on that very day, I noticed, and the similarities were striking, except for the music.

Thankfully our friends JJJZ recommended a quiet guesthouse just out of town and up the dirt track from an amazing organic farm that not only creates remarkable produce but also supports the local community in learning farming skills as well as reading and writing. Travellers can get involved in teaching and farm-work (if you’re around long enough) and can get a feel of a rural Lao existence  (www.laofarm.org). We could hear the ruckus from the local skin stomp up the river and were amazed at one point to hear a Paul Kelly song, only for it to be summarily and unceremoniously halted midships and replaced by the umpteenth running of Toto’s most appalling ‘Africa’. The din grated against the stunning surrounds of the pristine river, jungle and small crops like a power saw on a nail, but, as we were assured earlier, it all stopped when the sun went down, when we were presented with the resonance of singing crickets, chirping geckos and clucking hens.

At the farm Maddy and Raffy helped feed the goats and we wandered through the mulberry plantation which is mainly used for paper production, though we were careful about not straying too far from the path, due to what we had learned about UXOs.

img_5165

(Pic: Feeding the goats, Lao Farm, Vang Vieng, Laos)

Next stop was idyllic Luang Prabang, once the royal capital of Laos and getaway for expat Francophiles, and now a rather stunning, quiet village at the convergence of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers. Our days were spent wandering the small, intimate streets of this UNESCO World Heritage town (where busses and trucks are banned from the old centre), eating, resting and being rather merry.

The town is dotted with remnants of French colonial past, with many grand though crumbling villas, some of which are now slowly being restored to their former glory. We would wake early to the drum beats of the wat across the street, but would sleep soundly due to the alleged 11.30pm curfew in the area. Nobody ever spoke of it or would confirm it, but the entire town was silent the whole night – not a nudey bogan within earshot.

img_5296

(Pic: Mist over the morning market, Luang Prabang, Laos)

Being closer to the Chinese border, Luang Prabang seemed to be teeming with Chinese tourists. They drove in convoys from China and through town and were conspicuous as much by their gaudy and often inappropriate accoutrements as their blaring two-way radios. It seemed these guys desperately needed to keep in contact with the rest of their touring party at all times and so shouted at each other through their radios at every opportunity. It was most annoying at the wondrous night market, where people would browse, inquire and bargain in a tone akin to a blissful and reverential religious procession, and where the ambience would be shattered with the distorted blurtings emanating from a black box located in the vicinity of a Chinese arse.

Still, Raffy stole the show when, during dinner at a lovely riverside restaurant that at the time was patronised by a not insignificant number of tourists, he announced at the top of his voice: “I know why Americans are really weird.” We again revised the lesson about when it might not be appropriate to make disparaging remarks about an entire cultural group (in public) and when he can safely raise such issues (when only his family can hear him and we can chuckle quietly).

It was in Luang Prabang we also began secretly tittering at various examples of Laolish – or Englao – which were some of the failed attempts at writing signs and menus in English but ended up being a tribute to the failings of computer program spell-checks. We once ordered a serve of Morning Growly and were unsure of another’s Morning Gory, and had to trust the Lemon Glass wouldn’t cause any damage. Some dishes were served “prickled” (pickled) and “spikey” (spicy), and we were sometimes tempted by a dish’s “source”. Thankfully all worked out swimmingly.

img_5324

(Pic: Maddy and Sandy watch mulberry paper making, Ban Xangkhong, near Luang Prabang, Laos)

Maddy, in particular, familiarised herself with some Lao words and phrases, teaching us what she had learned and often translated for the rest of us. Her grandmother Néné commented during a recent conversation that Maddy was quite the linguist, and Maddy then inquired whether that meant she like linguini.

Cheap and nasty designer knock-offs were plentiful in Laos, as they are in much of the developing world, though we were astounded by the temerity, ignorance or perhaps the deliberate comedic cultural reclamation of kids getting around in Black Flag T-shirts. It is highly unlikely that many Lao teens know of the seminal Californian hardcore punk band, but considering the militia of the same name that operated in the vicinity about one hundred years earlier, causing enormous pain and devastation upon the local proletariat, as well as the French, I’m not sure everyone gets the joke.

But some of our biggest smiles were saved for our encounters with the Tamarind restaurant. Expat Melbourne dynamo Caroline, and her partner Joy, have created an authentic Lao dining experience that comes with explanations, descriptions and feasting procedures. Caroline’s mum works with Sandy and so, after initial contact many moons ago, we were eager to indulge and delighted with the results.

img_5259

(Pic: Maddy’s rather pleased with her efforts at the Tamarind cooking class, Luang Prabang)

Joy also offers cooking classes, complete with market shopping excursions, and Maddy and I jumped at the chance. After signing on just before 9am, Joy led a group of twelve budding cordon bleu to the local produce market, pointing out and describing many of the subtle differences in vegetables, herbs, spices and cuts of beast, after which it was on to his rural sanctuary where we selected, sliced, diced and Julienned the ingredients for four courses, and then steamed, grilled and fried them all just so, all of which we consumed throughout the day.

SK: Raffy and I spent most of the day by the Mekong, watching the boats go by, and building one of our own, much to the delight of a bunch of local kids. Our boat didn’t go very far, but it looked great.

DB: We also visited the innovative Big Brother Mouse bookshop that provided children’s books in Lao, English and French, and My Library, where young people in particular had the opportunity to learn English and use computers, both of which were run on the smell of an oily rag and empowered people to value education and aim a bit higher than they ordinarily would. While many young boys in particular choose to become novice monks (or the choice is made for them) it was heartening to see them learning long after dark to use modern technology in the grand and noble pursuit of knowledge.           

img_5348

(Pic: Sunset, Luang Prabang, Laos)

When we thought we were reluctantly all set to continue driving through Laos, disaster struck at precisely 2.20am. I know it was that time because I checked, and because it struck again at exactly the same time the following night. Sandy had unfortunately become the unwitting host of a gastro bug that was, we later discovered, doing the rounds of the town and simultaneously the Macarena in her stomach, and she was way-laid for the rest of the night and following day. The next night, Maddy and Raffy were sick within seconds of each other, at 2.20am, and so the inhabitants of our small room in our guest house spent 48 hours or so lying very still and wishing it all away. The following night at 2.20am I thought I felt woozy but didn’t thankfully succumb (which is less a sign of resilience and more an indication that I’ll get sprung one day soon when I least expect it), but again we were once more behind in yet another revised schedule.

After all had recuperated we hit the road and aimed for Phonsavan and the extraordinary Plain of Jars. Phonsavan seemed the antithesis of Luang Prabang – dusty, haphazard, noisy and struggling. Still, as we had learned, the Lao people know how to put on a splendid repast, we discovered at the local market that there is in fact more than one way to skin a local furry creature, and we found out more about what is being done about clearing UXOs from the land.

img_5459

(Pic: The Plain of Jars, Phonsavan, Laos)

The UK-based non-government organisation, MAG, the Mines Advisory Group (www.maginternational.org) is doing amazing work in raising local and international awareness about the perils of live munitions that continue to threaten the safety, livelihood and lives of people around the world, and especially Laos, and their shop on the main drag provided the information we perhaps don’t really want to know. Again, Maddy was furious at a world that was at the same time brutal and nonsensical, while Raffy’s mind began working on ways in which he could rid the world of the bombs that lie around waiting to strike the unaware and undeserving.

Still, remnants from the explosives that once rained down upon the earth here remain in full view and are almost celebrated. Adorning doorways, lining paths and hung on walls, bomb bits seem to be a way of life here.

img_5452

(Pic: Pleasant home decorations, Phonsavan, Laos)

It is at the nearby Plain of Jars, in three local sites, where hundreds of very large earthenware and almost prehistoric pots are scattered deliberately across the fields. And if the jars were not enough of a site to behold, we learned that there is no definitive explanation about why they are there, who put them there or precisely when they got there. The evidence tells us that huge efforts were required to construct and deliver them, as they are not made from local sources. Then, if that wasn’t enough amazement for one area, we discovered that the region is one of the most bombed in the country, as part of the Ho Chi Minh trail that was used to bring troops, armaments and information to South Vietnam once meandered through here. Much of the collection of jars was obliterated by the US’ relentless carpet-bombing before and during the Vietnam War, and bomb craters and trenches litter the sites. MAG has cleared some of the area of UXOs, but the paths to tread are clearly marked, and visitors are strongly advised not to stray.

Our bumpy, and perhaps over ambitious drive back to town presented us with another new experience – our first blowout for the trip. Pretty good going, I thought – almost 30,000kms without changing a tyre, but then again I was cursing myself as it was only a day before when I checked the spare and commented to myself: “Pretty good going – almost 30,000kms without changing a tyre.” Curse you, Murphy.

Soon after pulling over a crowd had seemingly materialised out of the dust and scrub, with much tut-tutting, commentary and probably advice, all in Lao. I extracted the required tools from the truck and got to work. Of course, not so straightforward. Even with Raffy standing on one end of the wheel-brace, there were a couple of wheel nuts that wouldn’t budge. I went to the back of the truck to get the steel pipe used to engage up the high-lift jack to use as greater leverage when one of the local rubber-neckers decided to have a go. No sooner had he strained at the wheel-brace than the thing snapped. There he stood, most of the wheel-brace in his hands, the socket still fitted to a wheel-nut, and he with a immensely uncomfortable look on his face. I jokingly pointed at him and let him know he had busted it, but, recognising he was feeling rather mortified, gave him a pat on the shoulder and a laugh. It was the first time that wheel-brace had been used – and the last. Luckily I had a spare and used that. Soon enough the wheels were exchanged and we were off. The tyre repair in town cost less than A$7 and it was ready for collection before dinner.

img_5501

(Pic: “It was his idea!” A broken wheel-brace didn’t stop us, Phonsavan, Laos)

From here we steered towards a road less travelled – south towards Paksan. The main throroughfare south from Vientiane, Route 13, was paved and used by most of the traffic, but to head south directly from Phonsavan meant taking a back road. It was this stretch that had us a little more than concerned as there were conflicting reports about the quality of the road and the time it would take to traverse. We had already encountered some pretty horrific potholed tracks when investigating the Plain of Jars, but entering some of the most remote forests of Laos became more challenging by the minute. Soon after leaving the paved road of Phonsavan I flicked our truck into four-wheel-drive, and then geared down into third, and then second. To preserve the tyres I had reduced their air pressure by about a quarter. It was hard going. Holes and trenches more akin to ravines, rocks, gravel, bulldust, mud and river crossings became the norm. I was anxious about being gentle with the truck, and at the same time wanting to make enough time to get to Ban Khoun Kham before dark, as this track was no place to be after the sun went down. And, adding to the angst, we had no confirmation about the actual distance between the two towns – something ordinarily easily gleaned from a map, but every map we looked at presented vastly different numbers, and the few and far between road signs went missing when we left the main road. Between our maps and bits of info gleaned from some locals, it was anywhere between 120 and 200-odd kilometres.

Much of the track was being continually butchered by logging trucks whose work, we were informed, seemed to teeter between the modern concepts of legal and illegal. At times we had to back up into a clearing of sorts to let a truck through – and other times I refused to budge too far into the scrub less the rear end fell into a river or went kablooee. The big, noisy, belching, Soviet-era trucks were large, butch and bruised enough, I reckoned – let them make room for a change.

img_5555

(Pic: You want us to cross that? On the way to Tha Thom, Laos)

Some of the track was actually being graded, potentially in readiness for the monsoon season. However while that sounds positive, in reality what it meant was there were numerous times when we simply had to wait until the road was constructed before we knew where to drive. At times we would be met by a length of bamboo draped across the track, and, in the distance, some graders playing in the sand. Often there was simply no road to speak of – just a long, lumpy and seemingly impossible stretch of sand and dirt that seemed to indicate the way forward. More than once we would ask rhetorically, “Um, where’s the road?” Then, someone would remove the bamboo and wave us through, and if the track didn’t prove enough of a challenge, waiting for the pint-sized two-wheel-drive vans and utes to get through the quagmire or extract themselves from a bog, was. And still people attempted safe passage on little scooters, walking them much of the way.

Still, the majority of the track delivered us through lush forest and jungle, through streams and rivers, across some rickety timber bridges that creaked, groaned and complained at our load, and past small tracts of land used for crops and rice paddies. Villages popped out of nowhere and, while the adults stared perplexed, most of the children waved and ran alongside. We were even fortunate enough to catch sight of what we believe was a black bear that meandered across the track a distance ahead of us.

img_5541

(Pic: About to cross a river on the way to Tha Thom, Laos)

The driving was nerve-wracking, trying to ensure we kept four wheels on the dirt and not propelling any rogue rocks into the sump, while at the same time the landscape was breathtakingly beautiful. Still, the sun was getting low, and given none of the villages had been thoughtful enough to provide “Welcome to” signs in English, let alone in Lao, we were generally at a loss as to how far along the track we had come, aside from the odometer readings, which didn’t tell us much. We drove through a number of tiny villages that presented a most idyllic, bucolic nirvana – fine looking buffalo wallowing in mud, chickens, ducks, cows, goats, pigs and turkeys all parading around joyful children, smiling adults and their bamboo and straw huts. The villages, while cosy, were not necessarily up to accommodating tourists for the night, and we hoped we’d eventually find a bed, as camping out in a UXO field didn’t sound all that inviting. As the sun finally gave up the ghost we rolled into a town a little larger than most of the villages we had passed, and spotted a guesthouse. In six-and-a-half hours we had travelled a grand total of 123km, averaging around 19km/h. Maybe Ban Khoun Kham was just up the track?

The truck was covered from axles to roofrack in thick orange dust and mud, and my arms ached. We eventually discovered that the town was called Tha Thom, which meant that, according to our maps, we weren’t exactly near Ban Khoun Kham – we were only half way.

img_5476

(Pic: On the way to Tha Thom, Laos.

Advertisements

3 Comments»

  Wally & Eleanor wrote @

Hi D S M R Its me again, I love your description of the driving habits and the types of vehicles that you encounter. Do they have such athing as road rage. I think you could write a book on just your driving experences in all the diferent countries that you have travelled. Looking forward to seeing you all when you get back, I have a lot of questions to ask. Love you all Wally & Eleanor.

  John P wrote @

Hello from Pam and John. That pic of the sunset in Luang Prabang is a beautiful picture and is so well ‘proportioned’.

Have you decided whether you are going to retrace your travells in W.A.? Beds are ready if you do.

JP

  Hilary wrote @

gosh – look how much i missed while the machine had repairs! may i be so dumb as to ask what is a wat?
i was thinking that there must be something deeply appealing about repeatedly impressing curious and astonished folk the world over with the facts and maps of your journey. i gather so many have never gone too far beyond the edges of their village, and the wider world could equate with outer space in their imagination, making you as exotic as space travellers.

re laotian bombies, landmines etc, i dream of a time when those companies which hastened to profit from their production are held accountable for their removal and disposal. now wouldn’t that be a worthwhile job for the un?
hx


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: