Siem Reap to Battambong by boat. An awful 2 hour bus ride (to go about 6 kms - two breakdowns and one flat tyre) and then a 7 hour boat ride. Including crashing into the trees to avoid a head on, and we all had to help push the boat out of where it was stuck. Good fun!

We wake at 5.30 so we can be packed and ready downstairs at 6am. There is confusion about whether the  boat is leaving at 7am, and we should be ready at 6am for  the minivan, or 7.30/6.30 . We go downstairs and wait. At 6.35 another  group  joins us waiting for the bus. A strange man with headphones seems to have some idea what is going on. Chairs are brought out for us  and we sit out on the street. At 7am the guy with headphones takes a blonde tourist somewhere on his motorbike. We get some takeaway fried rice for the journey.  At 7.30am we are told  the bus will be here in two minutes. When it doesn’t arrive 15 minutes later we are told it broke down.  

Finally the bus arrives and we are greeted but  some already weary travelers who explain the bus has broken down twice. We get settled and relaxed for the short journey to the pier. Halfway to  the pier  there  is a hissing noise  coming  from the side  of the bus - it has a punctured tyre. We all get out and wait for  some random car and a van to ferry us over in two trips. 

And now we are on the boat, 10am some 2.5 hours  after it was supposed to leave. We settle in  for  the journey! The diesel engine is very loud and the seats are quite cramped, with our bags strewn everywhere, but it is great fun. The  boat  leans lazily to the right when going straight. Kids wave and villagers go about their business, collecting fish (1kg = $10 we  are told). 

When we sail down  narrow passageways, with  trees growing out of the shallow water on  either  side, the trees come inside the  boat whacking those unfortunate enough to be sitting in the window seats. The guy  in front of me calls it “the lashings”. It takes us a while  to realize we  can lower the curtain, providing some relief. With the curtains lowered it  sounds like a scene from  Star Wars  as  the  sticks scrape across  the cotton and the diesel engine roars on filling the boat with fumes. 

While we are barreling down a narrow straight when we  hear the  horn of our boat together with the  sound of  another - we are heading for a head-on collision  as fast  as this  POS boat will go. At the last moment the  driver steers into the bushes, marooning  us  on trees as  the floating shop we were about to  hit  continues on regardless, assuming right  of way. We  are stuck, and on full reverse the boat will not move. The scout jumps out off the boat and begins to push, all others grab whatever branch they  can to aid the motor. Diesel  is pouring into the water  next to us as the engine spins making little  ground. Bit by  bit we inch out  of the  trees, finally free to  continue  our mad journey. 

After 7 hours  we  arrive  in Battambang, everyone amazed that we  managed to make it in one  piece and during daylight. Another successful delivery!

How to get from Battambang to Koh Samet in one day

6am - $30US - Pre-booked taxi,  booked  through  our  guesthouse, to take us  to Poipet  checkpoint. Driver  stops  and picks  up four cartons of beer to  make the journey  worthwhile.  Arrive 7.30am 

7.30am-9.30am - Line-up in Cambodia exit  counter  then line  up  again in arrivals for  Thailand. No  fee  as we are  Australian  and  get  a free  tourist visa. 
10am-4pm - 400 baht  (each) - Mini-van  from  Poipet  to  Ban Phe  ferry service.  Driver takes us  right to  the ferry. There  is  no traffic  but  the van stops   a lot increasing  the  journey  time. 4pm-5pm - 50 baht (each) -  Ferry across  to  the island 
5pm-6pm - Taxi  to  the  resort 

A long  day  but that is how we  managed  to   do it.  You  could probably do  a share-taxi from Battambang but the increased time  is not  worth  the cost  saving, much better  to  arrive  at the border as early  as possible. Bring an ipod  for  the long lines!

Koh Samet 

Battambong Circus - amazing! 

One day in Battambong. Bamboo railway, cave with bats, a spider, wine tasting at the only winery in Cambodia (once you try it you understand why - not great but the honey and ginger was delicious), a temple on a hill, and the so called “Killing Caves”.

Tonle Sap lake and the floating mangroves

Other ruins, temples, trees, monks and the many faces of Budda

Angkor Wat at sunrise

Phnom Penh to Udoung by bicycle

Laos Tour Diary - Luang Prabang to Vientiane

The problems started well before we had met. I tried to pay Jean Louis, our ex pat French Laos Tour guide, via international money transfer but my bank required his residential address which he had not provided. I suggested Paypal and after some  confusion about it being the email  address I needed, not the account number, the payment went through. Only  then did it became apparent Jean Louis  knew nothing about Paypal  and did not  understand the money would not go directly into his bank  account  but would be held  within Paypal. Added to this was arrangements of flights, trains  and  accomodation with a complex series of steps to get into  Laos and then up  to  Luang Prabang through many many emails. So there was some tension from the start.  

On the  night before the trip we had  dinner together at a French/Lao restaurant in the middle of  Luang Prabang. A short  ride over a terrifying old wooden bridge in flip-flops (I have learned to stop calling them “thongs”) and our first taste of some Laos traffic. For $50,  a very expensive meal in Laos, we have an absolute feast - six or so courses and a what  feels like an endless amount of Laobeer. Talk is of Laos, the adventure, the government and taxes. Jean Louis is suddenly friendly and we have a great meal, followed by a stroll through the market which sells only tourist junk and a startling array of French Laos fusion street food.  

Finally ride day arrives. We have improvised ways to pack our small amount of clothes, camera gear, ipad and other  misc  crap  onto the backs of the bikes, Yamaha TTR 250s after leaving our main luggage with our guide’s wife in Vientiane; using plastic bags and okkie straps. The result is not pretty but appears  stable. One bike requires some love with a screw driver to get started and mine appears to be loosing a  small amount of oil. Its adventure time. 

Our first day riding down is from Luang Prabang to the Plain of Jars via the main roads as the dirt road we were going to  take is too dangerous  at the  moment. The road is instantly  magic -  a twisty mountain road that is mostly sealed and traffic is mostly on the right side of the  road  around blind corners. We ride slowly as we  are still getting used to the traffic and the bikes. Coming from a GSXR1000 a TTR250 should feel underpowered, and certainly gear selection is critical, but the twisty roads and dangerous traffic make the bike feel just right. We are  the fastest thing on the  road by a factor of two for the buses and trucks and four for the various families on scooters also  making the journey. And eight for everyone else on foot. 

All along the roads are small villages perched precariously on hillsides, thier whole houses made of woven bamboo and banna leaves open to the weather, road and dust. Running water for each village consists of a pipe coming out of the drain on the side of the road and every at every one were children bathing, women washing clothes and collecting water. It is  not a sight you would see in any other part of the world and constantly reminded us how different this place is from home.  

We stop for refreshments at a random village at the top of the hill. We are in an everything emporium selling a variety of snacks, doubling as a restaurant bar and home for the owner. The toilet is of the squat variety and other family  members are  huddled around a true old-fashioned large asian kitchen cooking the days noodle  soup.  It smells amazing, even through the diesel fumes I am coated in from following a bus up the hill  that did not want  to  be overtaken.  

When we stop  for lunch at  a junction town a bit  further  along  there  is a loudspeaker in the   main round about about blaring the government messages. We are informed by our guide that as everyone has satelite tv now, no one listens to the propoganda any more but it still blares out three times a day. After a some delicious noodle soup and some energy drinks (warning - much stronger than the western equivalents) we hit the road again. 

Suddenly the twisty uphill we had earlier  seems positively  straight. The  road  down to  the plain of jars is  some kind of madmans rollercoaster. Some corners  wind around the  mountain, then seem to wind around again feeling like we have defied physics and performed some kind of 360/720 around the mountain. The camber was always spot on, even if each corner was made up of gravel. The  riding flows now, the traffic is lighter  and the up  here the mountain is verging  on cold.  Already we are all having a blast. 

We stop in Phonsavan where we learn about the great work for MAG in clearing UXO’s, or unexploded ordinances, from around the region. Xieng Khouang provence is one of the most heavily bombed region’s of Laos. The statistics of the amount of dropped ordinances are insane - a B52 load was dropped every 8 minutes on average for around 9 years and nearly a tonne  of  bombs was dropped for  each person in Laos at the time. There are so many stories of bombs still wrecking innocent peoples lives daily.  

Our accomodation here was billed as a “honeymooners delight” and after  winding our way up the hill to get there we can see why. Its a collection of huts  ontop of the hill overlooking the town. The view is breathtaking. While we eat, government members outside chew through French wine, whisky and most of the food in the resturaunt apparently celebrating something. After dinner we are offered a “Happy Cocktail”, infused with Ganja, but apparently it is out of stock due to the season so we resort to drinking a cocktail infused with Orchid. It tastes… plant like. We fall asleep listening to the noises of a Laos village in the valley below us, cicadas and chickens and turkeys all going about their lives. We are almost shocked at the temperature which tops into the teens during the night. We never expected to feel cold in Laos. 

Day 2, and we head south on dirt for a destination known only to our mad guide Jean Louis. The riding is not easy with suicidal poultry diving at wheels as  we go past, cattle, water buffalo, small children and  poor  road quality attempting to derail us. At one point a huge earthmover dumps  an enormous pile of dirt in front of  us on the road,  forcing us to leave the dirt track to  navigate around the pile.  Other trucks and steamrollers  are apparently building the road as we go and it is every man, scooter, bike, truck, bus and steamroller for themselves to get through in one piece. Families travel via strange tractor-like vehicles that have a large cabin in the back. After  a short lunch with Jean Louis we discuss options. We decide not all of the party’s off-roading skills are up to this level of challenge and head back  for the dangerous but a little bit  more  familiar asphault. The entire village, four houses consisting of about 15 people, come to watch us eat sitting in someone front room/emporium that is open directly to the road. 

Day 3 we ride back over the mountain heading for the “party town” of Vang Vieng. Its a great ride down with spectacular views of the mountains. At lunch there is a moment of panic when Jean Louis learns the restaurant has no Beerlao, resolved by a scooter rider dispatched to get more. He decides its time to tell us some morbid stories. Apparently the father who owns the restaurant  was killed in a road accident just outside. Then he tells us matter of factly that his neighbour killed some 13 people and injured many more while driving drunk at night. It’s  difficult to know what to say to such stories from Jean Louis, a man hardened to life in South East Asia from some 30+ years over here. We are just visitors into the madness that goes on here daily while for  him, from the world he left filled with too many rules.  

We ride to Vang Vieng weaving in and out of trucks  and vehicles. While riding my bike suddenly stops  and I’m forced to pull to the side of the road. When I get off the bike I  hear and hissing sound gasoline is pouring out of the bike. Before I have time to react locals have gathered and are looking at the bike with me. I set it upright and one of  them reaches in and re-connects the fuel line. I move the bike out of the puddle of gasoline and fire it up again - back in business. 

After arriving in Vang Jean Louise and I  we go for a quick 1 hour blat on the dirt leaving the girlfriend to explore the town, for fun and off-road practise. It takes all of about two minutes to leave all tourists behind, obnoxiously blaring past their bicycles flying along the dirt road. We weave over bamboo bridges and through small river crossings eventually arriving at a small village in nowhere. The villagers all come out of their houses to see who we are and why we have arrived. We say a quick  hello then make a quick exit. 

Vang Vieng is not the party town it was previously. The government has cracked down on the partying shutting down many of the establishments previously offering opium cocktails and the various dangerous devices launching people into the river. We can still find ganja and magic mushrooms for sale on the “happy menu”, but most restaurant/bars are very quiet and there are many closed huts that used to be surrouded by debauchery.   

Day 4. The final day is always a sad affair. To mix-up the monotony of the “highway” we head down a dirt track. A teenager on a scooter rides next to us keeping up despite his apparently inferior  vehicle. He puts his helmet on as  he is riding and weaves in and out of us. Up ahead  another earth  mover  is doing god  knows  what  and we  slow  to approach  it. Out of nowhere the scooter  pulls infront of me then sees  the  danger and  hits  his brakes, too quickly  for me to  realise and react. I lock the front  and end  up eating some  dirt, making a small  collision with his bike. We assess the damage  to me (scrapes and sprains only) and to the bike (looks ok, starts up) and get the hell out of there. Something is wrong, the handle bars are no longer sitting straight but its not a major problem and we continue on.  

We are expecting this dirt track to lead nowhere but suddenly we pull up at a large restaurant on the  man  made Nam Ngum Lake. While we sit over the water regular large floating restaurants leave the main restaurant so you can cruise  the lake and enjoy your food. It’s  Sunday and everyone has come up from Vientianne in their Sunday best while are covered  in dirty riding gear. We  order another feast - turtle tom yum, spicy shrimp, fish laap and something for the vegetarian. More beer and delicious food is consumed. 

Our final ride back to Vientiane is stressful and challenging, with much heavier and more varied traffic. At  times the vehicles  are  four abreast, the scooter overtaking the tractor being overtaken by the truck being overtaken by the car while we weave around the outside. It’s the boat race festival, the largest festival on the Calendar in Laos and everyone appears to be heading into town. Jean Louis stands up the whole way and seems to enjoy the game of chicken with oncoming traffic. 

We are glad to be back  ”home” and have a quick coffee with some other bikers who have just been out for the Sunday blat. Ex-pats gather and share stories of the roads less travelled they have been through. We wanted adventure, and we  seemed to find it everywhere we went. What  an amazing country, one made to be seen on a motorbike.
We kinda decided on a whim to take 3 months off and travel on a mad adventure.

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