Monday, 23 June 2008

Current Whereabouts

Just updated the blog, I've still a few days to fill in will do that tom. hopefully.

Monday 23rd June
- just qualified as an open water diver. Hopefully do my advanced stuff in the next few days. Weather generally hot and fine, sea temp 29 degrees. Reminds me of Blackpool


Sunday 8th June Northern Laos By Motorbike: Day Two

Northern Laos By Motorbike: Day Two
Woke up in my 40,000 kip a night room feeling reasonably well rested. The plan today was to ride to Xam Neua (also spelt (and pronounced) Sam Neua - rather confusing spelling doesn't seem very important to Laotians, and place names are often spelt differently by different people. Xam Neua is the capital of the Houa Phan Province in the far north east of Laos. After breakfasting on sticky rice, stir fried vegies, more free 'soup' (water with something like MSG added and the odd ringlet of spring onion) and some water I bid farewell to Ennau and at the fork in the road turned left following the signpost to Sam Neua some 150km north east of Vieng Thong. Oh yes, and it turns out that the place where I am staying is Vieng Thong, my intended target, so the 'Vieng Thong' village I refueled at many kms back down the road was indeed a fake!

Biking from Vieng Thong to Sam Neua
On the outskirts of Vieng Thong is a commercial petrol station which generally afford the best rates of fuel, currently 11,500kip per litre (70p-ish). Entreprenurial (or opportunistic, but you don't think of that when you're down to your last couple of drops in the middle of nowhere) villagers also sell fuel out of drums or pre-measured in plastic bottles. I filled up The Baja, whose chain was still lose and slapping about on the chainstay and climbed up a semi-sealed road. Dark clouds heavy with rain were pushing in through Vieng Thong which was now engulfed in the familiar grey vertical strands of rain. I was heading east, roughly the direction of the clouds and so attempted to outrun the wet front. It seemed to work. The cloud was slow moving, meaning that even on a road that hugged the contours of the mountain so closely, producing a thousand tight bends, I could just about stay out of the rain. This meant that photograph stops were few and far between, each time I stopped it was a case of whipping the camera out, grabbing a couple of snaps of a valley basking in sunshiiiiine on my right, and a valley about to be drenched on my left, and then jumping back on the bike as the gentle pitter-patter of rain became heavier and heavier. Upon reaching the top of the climb, maybe 15kms into the ride, you ride along a ridge on a semi-sealed road. The seal is broken up at times either by subsidence or tree roots. There were several recent landslides that had partially blocked the road - boulders the size of TV sets sat strewn across the single lane road meaning that you had to be somewhat cautious in your approach to blind bends and summits. Once off the ridge, a long flowing descent through yet more bamboo hut villages lined with waving children, pigs, goats, cows, chickens (who seem to have less road sense than any other creature on earth) etc. drops you down to a T-juntion that thankfully has markers indicating 94k left to Sam Neua and 150k right to Phonsavan. Infact, on this leg of the journey, navigation is at it's most straight forward, you can't really go wrong if you have your eyes open. It was to be a left turn onto Route 6 - a wider and more predictable road that unfortunately took me north east and straight into the thunderstorms that I had so cunningly avoided for the last couple of hours. Should I stop now and find a shelter until the rain had passed, or would I be waiting all day? With the weather around here at this time of year I could be holed up under a thatched roof goofily smiling at intruiged locals for weeks so I decided to push on into the storm clouds. It would be a good test for my waterproof luggage system that I'd devised in Luang Prabang. Route 6 drops you steeply down towards Houa Muang and a whole host of other villages, which all begin with the word 'Ban' which I can only assume means village or somesuch. The majority of villages only have their names in Lao, so the signs are absolutely useless to most farang. After five minutes on this road the heavens opened and in no time I could hardly see a thing as the rain stung into the rest my face and legs which were exposed - I don't have any leathers and no one in Thailand or Laos seems to have heard of knee pads or elbow pads. I tried to purchase some in Luang Prabang but the nearest I got was a sports shop selling ankle supports! The lad in the shop sheepishly explained that there wasn't much call for motorcross gear from the locals. Message understood. Route 6 has handily placed kilometer markers indicating the distance to Xam Neua. When the heavens opened I had 85km to go, it was going to be a long afternoon! My mountainbike jacket held up well, but my ungloved hands became cold and white-finger set in every now and then making it hard to judge how hard I was pulling on the brake/throttle/clutch as I'd lost feeling in my fingers. This can make cornering and slowing down for bends a bit tricky as swtching down a gear and releasing the clutch quickly can cause the rear wheel to skid and slide sideways on the wet surface, a movement which needs correcting pretty quickly. A quick blast of heat from the exhaust pipe sorts that problem out though. I passed through some fantastic low-level scenery as I neared Sam Neua, through my misted sunnies I had spied rice terraces, pagodas, charcoal and copper-coloured karst formations, misty mountain peaks emerging from dense jungle and finally the town of Sam Neua nestled in a valley a couple of hundred meters below. The 'Welcome to Sam Neua' sign was indeed a welcome sight. Ahh, civilization! Food! Hot Shower!

Sam Neua
Arrived in Sam Neua, the capital of Houa Phanh province. Laos is the poorest country in SE Asia by some distance and Houa Phanh is the poorest area of Laos. At this stage I was somewhat wet and bedraggled it was now 4pm meaning I'd covered 150k's in 4.5 hours - slow going indeed but any quicker and I'd have been scraping myself up off the road which had turned into a stream. The weather still looked rather iffy and my sightseeing excursion for the day was another 30k's east at Vieng Xai (the 'X' in this case is prounounced 'sch', note: also spelt Viang Xay) and so I hunted around for a suitable guesthouse. There are at least 5 guesthouses and 3 hotels in Sam Neua, and only a couple of farang a day pass through, I haven't seen a single westerner yet. I opted for a hotel perched on the eastern edge of the Nam Xam bridge overlooking the river (the word for water/river is Nam in Lao). The hotel (Hotel Sam Neua) is a beauty, I garnered a room on the third (top) floor overlooking the river and indeed the whole town. It has only been opened six months (since Jan 2008) and is plush even by western standards - the stairwell is a work of art in itself with carvings of Buddhist dragons/serpents (naga) lining the stairs in ornate fashion. My room was clean and airy and for 120,000 kip ($12) I could hardly grumble, even at twice the price of the nearby guesthouses. Oh, and the hot shower was out of this world.

I ate at the Lonely Planet recommended Dan Nao Muang Xam restaurant, just across the bridge from my hotel and was quickly pounced upon by a lad called Boonthan who spoke very good English. He was infact something of a chatterbox and proceeded to explain that he was an English teacher and also a local guide. No doubt he could explain the caves at Vieng Xai better than anyone else. My ears pricked up a little when he said he was scheduled to do some tutoring this evening. I listened some more and after ascertaining that he was a genuine sort, I asked if I might be able to help him. His eyes lit up an explained that he'd really like me to come and demonstrate to his students how the farang speak English around at his house this evening. This, I thought, would be a learning experience for all of us.

Hand Loom Weavers
Darkness fell on the sleepy town of Sam Neua where I don't think a great deal has happened since the Americans flattened it during the Vietnam war. Subsequently it has been rebuilt so I guess, the river aside, I'm looking at a Laotian New Town, crickey, I'm back in The Nage! At 7pm I returned to 'The Dan' restaurant and lapped up a tasty dish of noodles in soup with beef and vegies and no small amount of chillies. Boonthan arrived and, seeing my lather, kindly dished out tissues. A minute's motorbike ride away we arrived at Boonthan's (very) humble abode. He lives with his two sisters who from what I can gather take it in turns on the loom all day to create long rectangular pieces of cloth that are woven with patterns. The process looked painstaking and indeed was using technolgies that were pre-Industrial Revolution. As a boy at school I remember visiting cotton mill museums (which ofcourse were the life blood of Lancashire for many decades, erm, the mills, not the museums) and seeing demonstrations of how the hand loom weavers would sit at their looms and create garments out of cotton. Arriving at Boonthan's I really got the feeling that I had stepped back into an era that I thought had vanished hundreds of years ago. The girls would set the pattern, with all sorts of colourful threads being woven onto a black background and then pass the wooden shuttle from one side of the weaving frame/loom to the other. Boonthan said it would take two to three days to produce one 'garment', which can be worn in multiple different ways - over the shoulder for example when visiting a temple, as a scarf, a skirt etc. and these would sell for 50,000kip. By my maths that's one pound per day. I declined to buy one for my 'girlfriend in Engrand' (which somehow I had acquired, the same way I acquired a wife and two children last night) simply because I am living out of a 20litre rucksac for seven days and cannot physically carry it with me, which is a shame.

Engrish Ressons
Boonthan's English is quite good, he has a Thai-English dictionary and a tatty English phrase book dated 1955. Boonthan was proficient enough at the language to be concerned with grammar, phonetics, tone and sense-stress which are all very different to the Lao way of speaking. I could see that he'd been giving lessons already today as he had a list of words on the blackboard that all sounded alike, even though their meanings were competely unrelated, eg. wine, time, shine, line (I began to wonder if he was a secret Oasis fan!). He asked me to pronounce the words slowly and then at normal speed and he would copy me and then the two students would copy him. He struggled a little with 'th', 'ch', 'w', 'l' and 'gg' sounds but we got there. He was very pleased to have a farang help show him and his students the correct pronunciation, well the pseudo-Lancastrian one at any rate! The students were 'By Eck'-ing like little good 'uns by the time I'd finished with them. Sengdao hailed from Sam Neua and Lee was born here too but his family is from the Hmong tribe, immigrants from China I believe. They were both 17, although due to their height and complexion looked about 13. They were both very attentive and somewhat shy, they'd only been learning Engrish for a month or so. I tried to be as encouraging as possible to help them speak up and practise. During the two hour session they gradually became more confident and by the end of the evening we were able to role play asking each other our names, ages, where we were from, if we could speak Lao or English and so on. As the boys carefully took notes in Lao and English it gave me a little time to ponder on the impact the learning of English would have on their lives. Would it be all positive (they'd be able to converse with farang and therefore have better access to money), or would it turn them into the sort of Laotian I'd met in Luang Prabang who abandon their own values and ways of life (even if they are hundreds of years 'behind' the west) and transform themselves into pests who rather than work with the Farang are always trying to rip them off? Was my intended good deed going to work out for good or for bad? My conclusion was that all good things can be used or abused, just about every scientific and tehnological advancement has proved this (see Nobel's dynamite, Oppenheimer's nuclear bomb, genetic modification of crops, animals and humans, Tim Berners-Lee internet and so on). I'll leave it up to Sengdao and Lee to choose their path. For me it felt good to help these kids have a brighter future than subsistance farming.

Beer Lao Style
As is happens, Lee's family run a little shop and they sell beer, so to pay for the lesson he'd brought a couple of bottles of something like Beer Lao but not quite. Boonthan explained that when Laotians drink, they open one bottle and share the same glass. Warning, warning, warning! The spectre of catching Hep B or some jungle fever that these lads were immune to sent alarm bells firing off all over my head. I would quite happily not participate but it seemed I had no choice. They poured a mouthful each and in turn we drank, I taught them 'cheers' and they taught me 'gnok' (pronounced 'nyuk'). We shared two bottles between four of us. The little fellas were visibly tired - Laotians rise with the sun around 5 or 6am usually, so we shook hands, I grabbed a photo in front of the white board 'from Thailand, 83,000kip, cheap cheap' beamed Boonthan. Cruised back to my hotel and began to count my lucky stars I was born in England. Had another wrestless nights sleep despite being in very comfortable surroundings, I wonder if that is attributable to Doxy? I don't even get to the stage where I get bad dreams.

Saturday 7th June Northern Laos By Motorbike: Day One

Northern Eastern Motorbike Tour of Laos
Today was to be the first day of my motorbike tour of northern Laos. I had 'borrowed' the itinery from the firm (Green Discovery - a very well run outfit) who I'd hired my Honda Baja 250cc dirt bike from. Check out the official trip description here for a succint overview of my trip. I had planned to make the journey in five or six days but as things turned out it was more like eight days in total. I should at this point thank GT-rider's author David Unkovich and many forum contributors who gave me invaluable information that helped me navigate my way around this beautiful corner of South East Asia. It was a real adventure and one that I'll never forget, I hope you enjoy the highs and lows as much as I did.

Traveling Light
Any thoughts of an early start were put to bed by last nights' late finish, so at 9am I began the rigmorall (is this a real word? It is in Lancashire) of packing up. I wrapped my guitar in my coat, cunningly using a sleeve as a fret-board protector and then shoved any other non-essentials in my big rucksac. Both guitar and rucksac were to be put on a bus and transported to Vientiane where I would pick them up 6 days later. I had been at pains to explain that my guitar must be treated like a princess, and no that doesn't mean played three times a day!

Had my final breakfast at The Ancient, this time it was French style pancakes and bacon and fried eggs with a coffee. Also purchased a coconut cake which was to prove invaluable later in the day. Checked out of my lodgings ($12 per day, fan, no aircon (and extra $6 and it's not really that hot at night - 75 degrees max), hot shower, own loo. Went to the ATM which was closed so found another one (there are about 4 in LPG and they all have strange opening times and most only actaully give you the money after several attempts). Withdrew 2.1 million kip which sounds a lot but is actually only 125 pounds. This money had to last me my entire journey including accommodation, all food, water, beer, sightseeing admission charges and ofcourse petrol costs for six or seven days until I reached Vientiane my journeys end and the only other place with cash machines on my route.

Bought a pair of boots for 15 pounds as I left my last pair propping up a matress in Chiang Rai, they really stank anyway. Bought a dry bag and then headed off into the great unknown. Cruised up highway 13, all my belongings for the next seven are now packed into a 20 litre rucksac, that's what I call downsizing. The sun was shining and the forecasted rain was nowhere to be seen thankfully. After 30k's or so I hung a right towards Pak Xeng and blatted along a half-sealed rode for 65k's snaffling a quick photo of a working elephant as it plodded along the dirty track whilst being ridden by two Laotian loggers. At Pak Xeng, just after the river crossing you take a left fork up a steeply inclined dirt road as it eventually brings you out onto a ridge which is lined by countless small villages consisting of around ten small bamboo huts on stilts. The views from on top of the ridge are fantastic.

Navigating in SE Asia
Laotians on the whole seem to be better than Thais at directions, Thais just nod and tell you what you want to hear whereas Laotians draw maps with sticks on the ground, some of which are very confusing! The main problem when navigating in this part of the world is that quite often the maps (although very very good David U!) don't show some forks in the road and at these little junctions there may or may not be a signpost which almost invariably will have instructions in Thai or Laos which are completely unintelligible to westerners. Taking a wrong turn can result in a detour of several hours until it becomes semi-apparent that something isn't quite right. It's darned hard work navigating out here even thought there are so few roads. It doesn't help not knowing the language either.

Driving on the Roads
Not quite as well policed as the UK and not a single speed camera in sight, driving in SE Asia so far hasn't been too precarious, you just have to be on the constant lookout for unexpected road hazards such as kamikaze chickens, slow moving ducks, sleeping pigs, docile cattle, nonchalant water buffalo, mangy looking dogs, small children, rockfalls, craters, bogs, scooters, 4x4s and the odd public bus. Most vehicles insist on taking up both sides of the road so it's a risky game cutting corners unless you are absolutely sure there's nothing coming the other way.

The Village People
Enroute I passed countless villages, and without fail as soon as a child spotted me on my bike they'd smile, wave vigorously and shout 'Sabaidee'. They are so cute, my hand ached from all the waving, I felt a bit like the Queen but it made the kids' faces light up with glee so it just had to be done no matter how late in the day or how tired the Royal Hand. Eventually descended off the ridge and took a left hand fork (not on the map) maybe 5km before Sam Soun. Actually I took the right fork thinking 'stay high' as it climbs up the ridge but 3km up this narrower track I stopped and asked villagers if I was on the right track to Sam Soun. After much head shaking and many confusing stick diagrams later I headed back to the fork and took the left downhill and in ten minutes or so I was very happy to stumble upon Sam Soun which is little more than a T-junction, but it did mean I was on the right track thank goodness. At this point I devoured my carrot cake purchased earlier this morning to beautiful views over the lush green carpeted mountains all around me. Good job I had that carrot cake as I hadn't seen anywhere to grab food for many hours.

Vieng Thong Or Not Vieng Thong?
After a quick re-fuel at a makeshift petrol station (a wooden shack with a few plastic bottles containing the red stuff) I attempted to resolve the problem I'm having with my bike - the chain keeps going slack and clanking on the chain stay. Not a show stopper but rather annoying. Managed to get my bike partially fixed by a very helpful villager in a village that was signposted as 'Vieng Thong'. Hmm, twas too small to have a guesthouse though, in hindsight I think this was a cunning rouse by the locals to make the farang think they are in Vieng Thong, they certainly seemed to agree that we were in Vieng Thong when I asked them, although I was subsequently to find this was not the case at all. The light was fading by now and some dark, menacing looking clouds were drawing in. In the absence of any guesthouses there was nothing for it but to crack on until I found somewhere suitable to sleep for the night.

Randomly found the first guesthouse I'd seen since Luang Prabang, neon lights have never looked so good! I was beginning to think I might have to gate crash a village hut and sleep with the pigs. The guesthouse was basic but had mozzy nets, a bed, a hot shower in the outhouse and squat toilet too. After a long days riding, often not knowing if I was on track or had been heading up a two-or-three hour dead end I was ready for a shower and some food. The shower proved to be a mere trickle that made my mum and dad's old shower seem like the Niagra Falls in the rainy season. It took me a good 15 minutes to get wet all the while dodging hungry mozzies whose radars must have been going berserk as I stood there starkers.

Laos At Last
Tentatively wandered 50m or so down the road to Ennau & Ding's restaurant, which had a sign in Lao outside. Generally that means cheap food at local prices, not over-inflated tourist prices. The owner, Ennau beckoned me inside. Ennau's spoke a little English and was keen to sit with me and converse before, during and after my meal. The difference in attitude towards farang was marked. Ennau was genuinely warm, earnest and kind and attentive and more interested in making friends than making money, sadly the opposite was true in Luang Prabang which for all it's pretty charm was inside just a tourist trap. The UNESCO World Heritage fund has ordered that the whole town be protected, preserved and rebuilt. It's a shame that this order only applies to the buildings and architecture and doesn't extend as far as protecting the hearts, minds and attitudes of the residents. It pains me to say it but I get the impression that whatever Luang Prabang had, it has lost. Like whitewashed graves, it looks pretty on the outside but inside is full of dead mens bones, now where have I heard that before? Anyway, where I am right now (I'm not sure what the name of this town is) I feel I've finally found a piece of the real Laos!

Work, Education, Health
Ennau and I discussed many topics, albeit with a lot of hand waving. After rummaging around in his bedroom which is on the ground floor immediately next to the kitchen and adjacent to his in laws' bedroom, Ennau produced a tatty looking book with an English gentleman on the front sporting a monocle. It had some writing in Lao on the front. He explained that whilst living in Luang Prabang as a child he had bought the book, an English-Lao phrase book and had studied it since he was 16 years old, he as now 28. He was keen for his daughter-to-be to learn too and said he'd send her off to Luang Prabang and pay 100,000kip per month to have her educated. Ennau drove a truck once a week (no matter how hard I tried I couldn't get an answer to what was in the truck, chances are it would be agricultural products). He made the journey to the cities such as Luang Prabang, Phonsavan or across the border to Vietnam to deliver his goods. The rest of the time he worked in the kitchen with Ding who was 8 months pregnant. 'My wife very fat' he explains, 'she open in one month'. That's one way of putting it I thought as I quietly spat out yet another piece of chicken gristle. He wanted to know how many children I had and wouldn't relent until I said I had two, a boy aged six and a girl aged three and that my wife was back in England working selling flowers. (All references to children and a wife are purely fictional, ahem!). Ennau explained that if you want your children to go to school you have to pay. I explained that it was free in England up to the age of 18. He looked gobsmacked. I then noticed a huge amount of scarring on the top of his right wrist. He explained that he fell off his motorbike after drinking too much Lao Lao (rice whiskey) and made a mess of it. He says he went to a hospital in Thailand for two months and paid 20,000bhat (a fortune for Laotians) to have a skin graft. I knew already that health care in Laos isn't as good as it is in Thailand and so could understand why he went. 'Why not Laos hospital?' I enquire, Ennau shakes his head and makes a slicing motion above his wrist. 'In Laos they do this'. At this point the I really began to understand how backward Laos is in terms of health, education, sanitation and so on. Another fascinating topic came up. Ennau wanted to know how much it cost in England to have our children taught to learn Laos. A perfectly good question if you think about it. I'm not sure if he understood my Commonwealth-based answer but I hopefully managed to let him down gently!

Chicken Feet
Ding had made me stir fried chicken and sticky rice (Laotians eat sticky rice rather than steamed rice wherever possible), it was very filling - just what the doctor had ordered but the chicken pieces were a mixture of cartilage and feet. Luckily there was a cat handy to help me look more appreciative.

Lao Lao Land
Ennau cracked open the Lao Lao and insisted we went in turns. Lao Lao is a rice wine whiskey that is legendary around these parts and is drunk on a daily basis by most Laotians. He explained that a couple of shots would help me sleep. He poured it out of a big plastic drum (which didn't inspire confidence). The whiskey was completely translucent, ie. 'white', not brown like Scottish whiskies. I was already feeling whacked out and had heard tales about the inebriating effects of Lao Lao so I was not keen on having any, but Ennau insisted we went in turns. Three shots each later my upper digestive tract felt like it just had a hot poker inserted into it. Lao Lao has a similar burning effect on your throat as Doxy (my anti-malarial meds.), and so the two together gave quite a painful chest-on-fire sensation, but what can you do with hospitality like this? I just had to make a few audible whooping noises and grin through the stinging.

Rice Based Economy
The Laotian economy is agriculturally based, in fact only this morning I was reading the Vientiane News(paper) and both headline stories featured rice farmers, highlighting their current plight - fuel and fertilizer prices make growing rice uneconomical. The further north in Thailand (Chiang Rai province) the more rice workers I saw out in the paddy fields. This trend continued into Laos, and now it seemed that the vast majority of people here eek out a living by either foraging off the land or planting rice. As an aside, in this part of the world they use the measurement of a 'rai' rather than acres or hectares. A rai is a 40m x 40m plot of land. It's been puzzling me for sometime as land is sold by the rai. Now we all know what a rai is, good.

By 10:30pm I was dying on my feet and the Lao Lao was indeed sending me into a sleepy coma, so I settled the bill: 35,000 kip for 2 Beer Lao, 3 shots of Lao Lao, stir fried green vegies, chicken feet and sticky rice and soup. That's about two of your British pounds.

Thudded into bed, applied the garish pink mozzy nets and fell soundly asleep.

Friday 6th June

Breakfasted at where else but the Ancient Cafe at the far end of the main touristy drag opposite the tribal market. I made the mistake of buying a chicken and salad butty from one of the stall holders the other morning and ever since she seems to be able to spot me a mile off and greets me with a massive 'Sawadee' and even bigger smile.

Hired a motorbike for 7 days (Honda Baja), took it on a test drive, the chain was as loose as a Bangkok hooker so had that fixed. The hire firm are Green Discovery who specialize in elephant rides and treks and so forth, but they are also recommendedby gt-rider as a reliable source of motorbikes. The young lad spoke good English and was very helpful. After signing my life away and leaving my passport I took the fettler out on a 60k spin to Tat Kuang Si which is a beautiful collection of multi-tiered waterfalls tumbling over limestone formations into a series of cool turquoise-green pools. Sadly I rocked up at closing time (5pm) and didn't fancy the 20,000 kip price tag to get bitten alive at Mozzy Hour, not did I take kindly to the gypo trying charge me 2,000 kip for parking my bike. Grrrr! Apparently the waterfalls are very pretty and you need at least a coupe of hours to explore them and swim in the various pools. Not much point in me hanging around this sugar trap so I hammered it straight back to LPG, watched a game of eleven a side at the LPG footy ground then saw more of the town in 5 minutes on a bike than I had the previous 4 days on foot. Since Chaing Mai I had forgotten how muh freedom a bike an give you. Just five minutes on the bike and you are out of 'frarang' territory. Joy.

After a brief six-headed shower I joined the girls for a meal of steamed catfish and sticky rice before heading to Nau's sports bar for some tennis action (Roland Garros, Federer beat the theatrical but oh so French 'runner up' Monfils. We stayed up late back at the girls place knowing that this was our last night together. Between us we seemed to have clicked, despite us all being quite different. Heather and Sarah are quite different but seem to compliment each other well as travelers, they look out for each other which is what you need in a strange place where you do not fully understand the culture an don't speak a word of the language.

Thursday 5th June

Currently in Luang Prabang soaking up the Laotian hospitality, and the monsoon rains every afternoon. England have lost the toss and are batting against NZ, I've got the commentary streaming in to my laptop as Aggers describes the gladiatorial action. Ahh, we've lost a wicket already so Michael Vaughan (My Lord) strides out to the wicket, sadly there are no spangly pads anywhere to be seen. You can't expect to beat a mediocre side like NZ if you aren't wearing shiny pads a la IPL, come on the Kolcutta Knight Riders, gold pads are the way forward they really are. All the best wear Platinum Party Pads, how can you possibly not score?! Forget flashing the Rolex, it's all about the leg guards.

Had one too many Beer Lao last night and so was a bit fragile this morning. They have an 11pm curfew throughout Laos but no one told me and so it was lock-in-oclock. A great idea until I couldn't get back into my guest house. Luckily they had one of those annoying door bells that plays a tune, so a few rounds of "When the saints go marching in" later a little fella comes and opens the door which I obliging fell through as I was resting my head on it.

Didn't do a lot today, it rained most of the day so I did some more research about motorbiking around Laos and travelling to Siem Reap (Angkor Wat). I used the internet all day for 5000kip, which is about 30p whilst munching on freshly made cake again for 30p for a massive piece of apple cake, and carrot cake, and chocolate cake, I'll stop there!

Bumped into Ian and Miranda who now live in Tasmania but he's originally from Lancashire (near Garstang) and she's from Auckland NZ. Although they have children not much younger than me we seemed to get on very well, having shared a bus from Chiang Rai to the Thailand/Laos border and then a two-day boat ride down the Mekong. They are an interesting couple, Ian loves his photography, I could see he had a good eye for a photo. Miranda was very friendly. They didn't always see eye to eye on the accomodation front though, with Miranda prefering the more expensive places whereas Ian was happy with less.

My evening meal was a vegetarian all you can fit on a 4inch diameter plate buffet from the night market, you guessed it, it cost 30p. Should have taken my Alan Partridge 12 incher and really taken the biscuit.

Had a quiet night watching the ladies tennis semi-final at Roland Garros. I've decided I'm supporting Ivanovich as she is the prettiest and wears the best outfits. She won today, I eased into my first dark Beer Lao which at 6.5% tastes surprisingly good and is very easy going on the palate, which is handy as my course of Doxycycline has the annoying side effect of making your upper digestive tract burn, so knocking back anything can feel like your having your oesophagus scraped out by sandpaper. Nice.

Wednesday 4th June

Visited the Royal Palace in the centre of LPG, nice gardens but not overly opulant. The palm trees lining the driveway is a nice touch. My next house will have similar landscaping. The palace is now a museum but until the revolution it was the residence of the last king and queen of Laos before the country became a republic. The royal family were taken somewhere north and quietly disposed of. Maybe the French influence went beyond language and bread making and all the way to beheading. Guillotine anyone?

Strolled around the peninsular where smaller river Nam Khan snakes around and meets the Mekong. Tis warm work.

Accompanied Heather and Sarah to the night market which is basically row after row of red tents that are erected at 5pm and host mainly hill tribe people selling their wares. There are alternating tents of t-shirts with western logos and the ubiquitous Beer Lao t's. My favourite t-shirt had the logo 'Fat people are harder to kidnap' which I thought was great, the irony being that they only had it in small sizes, hey ho! Then there are the mat vendors which sell embroidered floor mats, then there's the handbag stall which sell hand made and very colourful handbags, then there's the multicoloured brolly stall, the 'silver' bracelet stall and finally the odds and sods stall which has a random selection of nick-nacks such as opium pipes, scorpions in whiskey bottles, large wooden jars, bamboo crafts, art print on textiles, Buddha carvings and other such essential items.

The people selling the goods are usually women, and they usually have a little baby or two in tow to engage the farang and sucker you into to a sympathy purchase. In addition to this children walk up and down the main tourist steet (Sisavangvong - named after the last king) selling trinkets such as wooden beaded necklaces and hand painted dolls. They talk to you as nice as pie but as soon as you explain you can't buy anything as you can't carry it home on the plane they look like they've just lost all their family in a spate of ethnic cleansing. Which unfortunately might not be too far off the truth in some cases so it's not fair to be too cynical. You've just got to be firm but fair.

Tuesday 3rd June

Sunset atop Phu Si (a hill overlooking LPG and the Mekong) with a gazzillion and one other Lonely Planet readers. How annoying.
Also saw Buddha's Foof which was rather noteworthy. (An unfortunate mispelling of Buddha's Foot but rather humourous, I thought Buddha was a bloke but maybe not!)

Spent a considerable amount of time in the Ancient Cafe doing internet research and eating tasty and cheap food, or should that be foof?! They home bake cakes and you can buy a nice chuky peice of apple cake for about 30p. Mmmmmmmmm.

Now For Laos
Laos is a third world country, the people here are generally very poor. The terrain is quite mountainous in the north, each mountain invariable cloaked in jungle and rivers flowing rapidly in the valleys below. Laos has a very poor road infrastructure which inhibits economic progress, I'd go so far as to say that Laos roads are worse than those in Leeds. Laos used to be owned by France who neglected it, then during the Vietnam war the Americans bombed the hell out of the place and left thousands of unexploded ordinance (bombs, Jon) here.

The Plan For The Next Seven Days
I'm going to hire a motorbike in the next few days and get into the jungle and away from all these pesky Westerners who insist on doing the same crappy tourist things which involve getting ripped off by little men in tuk-tuks who take them to see a water fall, or the nine millionth temple they've seen on their trip.

Hopefully I can avoid the following:
  • The massive spiders (as big as your hand)
  • Snakes (I nearly ran a five-footer over in Thailand) and my grandad Eric reckoned he saw a Python eat a motorbike around these parts when fighting in some war or other.
  • Tigers, elephants and anything that can eat or squash me.
  • The 'little green men' (Laos military police who are very suspicious of foreigners as they think you might be helping the Americans cause political trouble or take pictures of their persecution of Hmong tribal people who are refugees from China hiding in the hills)
  • The massive potholes, some as big as a swimming pool!
  • Malaria (very high risk, I'm taking some anti-malarials but they don't protect against all types of malaria, just the worst few).
  • Crazy driving (and they drive on the right, like the French)
  • Corrupt police (AKA the little green men) who want money for nothing.
  • Scammers who try and make money out of foreigners.
  • More Delhi Belly, which isn't pleasant.
  • Too much Beer Lao, the only thing that Laos actually produces at a national level. It's quite good and is 50p a pint!
  • The monsoon rains which make the roads and dirt tracks very treacherous, it's rainy season so each afternoon it buckets it down.

Monday 2nd June

Day 2 river boat Pak Beng to Luang Prabang (450bhat)
After a continental breakfast of croissant, jam, fruit, tea and the like Sarah, Heather and I headed back to our hotel to pack. We strolled down to the water front, it was only 8:45am but the sun was already beating down and the air temperature rising to a very close 90 degrees. There was a line of boats all parked nose-in to the river bank. Ther must have been 15 or so long boats of various dimensions all lined up and ready to roll. So which boat was ours? Ahh, it'd be the one that was only half as wide as the boat we had yesterday.

Mutiny on the Boaties
Despte being up at 7am we were pretty much the last to board the long boat and there was no room at all but they wanted to squeeze eight more bodies on. People were sat next to each other interlocked bodies, no room to move at all. Me, Sarah and Heather just refused to get on the boat (they were going to throw our luggage on the tin roof and we'd sit up there (it was a baking 95 degrees and later it thunderstorm threw it down for 3 hours non stop!). We refused and a Canadian couple began working the sheep on the boat into a mutiny. Otherwise it was 9 hours on a boat with no room to move (absolutely no chance of getting to the onboard 'toilet'). Aside from the sheer discomfort (even a battery hen would have complained), if the boat toppled over which was quite likely and has happened in the past when over loaded, I reckon a good half the people on board would have drowned. Now I'm not into safety but this was daft - I wasn't getting on the boat. Anyways, after 15 minutes of standoff we started a 'Bigger Boat, bigger boat, bibber boat' chant. A minute a couple of people jumped ship from the very narrow long boat to the boat we had yesterday which was considerably wider and just about adequate. We legged it onto the bigger boat and suddenly a swarm of bodies an bags began moving from one boat to another - we had triumphed! Better still, the boat organisers had exeeded expectations and gave us BOTH boats so all could travel in relative comfort.

Later on that journey the thunderstorms struck and we had to dock along the river banks several times because visibility was down to zero. On one occasion visibility was so bad that the skipper accidentally parked a little too close to the rocky river bank, infact he parked on the rocks and beached the boat. It took quite a bit of manpower to lever the front of the vessel of the rocks, all in the pouring rain. An adventure! I have subsequently bumped into my two fellow mutineers Canadian Brian and his good lady Dion. We made a good team. My grandad Joe always liked Canadians, he shared many missions over Germany as a rear gunner in a Halifax bomber guided by a Canadian navigator, so big up the Canadians.

Arriving in Luang Prabang
Eventually we arrived in Luang Prabang (LPG), it was bucketing it down. Sarah, Heather and I jumped ship and dived into a tuk tuk just to get out of the rain, we were joined by Ian (originally from Lancashire but now based in Tasmania) and his good lady Miranda from Auckland. What followed next was rather annoying. We asked to be taken to a couple of the guesthouses recommended by non-other than The Lonely Planet. Instead of complying with our request the tuk tuk driver basically took us to all his mates guesthouses. The girls inspected the rooms (getting thoroughly soaked each time) but the rooms were either too grotty or the last one had just been taken. This annoying chirade went on for nearly two hours as the tuk tuk man ignored our requests. By now it was dark and still persisting it down. The Dude had abided long enough. The official pointing finger was brought out to play. Two minutes later we were at our requested destination, which was about 50 yards from where we were picked up in the first place! Grrrrrr. In the end we stayed at The Luang Prabang Lodge for US$20 a night per room. The rooms were excellent, the showers hot and powerful and best of all Liverpool's top 100 Premiership games was showing on the TV. From that point on I vowed never to jump in a tuk tuk again unless it was absolutely neccessary, I'd rather walk.

Sunday 1st June

Chiang Rai early start, 2 hrs bus to Chiang Khong. Tuk Tuk, deep fried banana for take-away breky then unnecessarily cumbersome to-ing and fro-ing between the Thai and Laos boarder which was a comedy of errors and haphazard misorganisation.

Laos Immigration
... is not the most thorough affair. At the boarder, before you can make your way up the river bank onto Laos soil (although there's nothing stopping you swimming across and bypassing the whole charade if you felt like it) you have to fill in an immigration card just as if you'd landed on a plane. Curiosity got the better of me as I wondered just how lackadaisical the passport checks would be. Could I get away with a dodgy immigration card? Only one way to find out, I entered my surname correctly and then added my first name as 'The Dude' and my occupation as 'Stuntman', childish I know but it entertained the hell out of me whilst everyone else tussled with the crazy bureaucracy and general arse-about-faceness of the immigration process. Needless to say my passport was stamped and my papers given the all clear by the officials who were more interested in counting their winnings (it's $36 to get into Laos) than checking who was coming into their country.

After a short but sweaty walk of maybe 3/4k from one boat stop to the other we located the ticket office and attempted to buy a ticket for the first half of the journey on the slow boat to Pak Beng which cost 420 bhat. I had considered catching a rocket powered canoe that takes 6hrs to get to Luang Prabang but the girls had been spooked by stories of frequent deaths on these crafts and so I acquiesced and took the slow boat.

Money Money Money
The ticket girl 'accidentally' give me the wrong change (she short changed me by 500 bhat (nearly a tenner - which would feed the whole of Laos for a week) and giggled at her accidental mistake before handing me the correct change. An honest mistake surely? Nah, I'd just seen her do the same to Sarah in front of me! A word to the wise if you're going to Laos, it's not easy working in Thai bhat (63 to the pound), Laos kip (16,000 to 1GBP), US dollars (2 to 1GBP) all at once, and converting all the time back in to pounds sterling, then figuring out if you've been given the correct change (always in kip), which usually looks a lot, but in reality isn't. The local people who frequently come into contact with foreigners are adept at ripping off foreigners (biting the hand that feeds it) and will invariably try and short change you or catch you out with dodgy exchange rates. Pay in kip where possible, it just makes things so much easier.

The Slow Boat To China
We boarded the slow boat, a 40m x 5m long boat with a wooden roof, some sort of toilet and a loud throbbing Isuzu truck engine beating away towards the rear. Fortunately our fellow passengers had neglected to do their research and left the front of the boat which has no benches - just floor space, all to us. This is the quietest and most comfortable part of the boat, right behind the skipper. We felt rather pleased with ourselves. The boat was definitely overcrowded by British maritime regulations but we all just about had enough room to breathe and it was possible to step over bodies to get to the loo/bar.

Enroute we must have passed through a thousand different whirlpools and countless sets of rapids that sent the boat at speed between the jagged grey rocks that protruded menacingly out of the river bed. The words of Greg from the UN Bar in Chiang Mai kept visiting me, he was talking about the boat trip along the Mekong: 'There is *nothing to see*, there are trees and water, water and trees, there is *nothing to see*'. This view was a bit cynical but I did see his point. This route is supposed to be a backpackers right of passage. It does feel quite special to be chugging along the Mekong as fishermen and villagers go about the work in the same way they've been doing for hundreds of years. I'd recommend doing the route once, then next time just fly from Chiang Mai.

We arrived in Pak Beng tired from the long hot and moderately cramped-up journey (it would make Easy Jet's legroom policy seem positively generous). Pak Beng is a small settlement that exists purely as a stop over point roughly halfway between Huay Xia and Luang Prabang. After the strict no-drugs policy in Thailand the offer of cheap and ubiquitous narotics (weed and opium) was just too much for some farang. We ate out at a restaurant, the pungent aroma of pot came drifting over from all directions. Half an hour later there was a crash of plates as a Spanish girl passed out from over indulgence and landed with her head in her plate. Classy. The little waiter was jumping around gleefully whispering to us 'too much marijuana'. The power for the whole town is supplied by generators which are switched on 6:30pm-10:30pm, after that the whole town is engulfed in darkness. For this reason we had an early night, attempting to get to sleep before the fans shut down.

Excellent accom. in Pak Beng. We paid US$7 per room - they were nice with a balcony overlooking the Mekong from our lofty viewpoint some 50m above. Here's a lesson for those who travel out of peak season: never book ahead. If we had (and several French and Americans fell foul of this) the price for the hotel would have been $35 per night which doesn't seem a huge when you're sat online and used to paying much more for Western Hotel but it is five times the price of the dearest hotel in Pak Beng. So beware.

Saturday 31st May

  • Stayed in Chiang Rai at Baan Bua for 200bhat a night.
  • Visited the 'White Temple', or Wat Rong Khun as it is properly known, it i one artists life long labour of love and is the most spectacular temple I've ever seen. If you ever go to Chiang Rai it is a 'must see'. It's not quite finished yet but that doesn't matter. In the afternoon it rained so I had an internet session.
  • Quiet night after eating at a local (ie cheap and cheerful) eatery. I was still hungry though and had pork spare ribs soup and local green vegetables at the night market after Sarah and Heather had completed their shopping spree.

Friday 30th May

  • Acquired some 'Doxy' to hopefully prevent malaria whilst in Laos.
  • Got a 9:30am bus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai. A pretty straight forward 4hr journey on sealed roads. We arrived in Chiang Rai and hauled our bags around the streets. Chiang Rai doesn't look much cop.
  • Went to the Hill Tribe village museum and learne about the hill tribe people. I'd recommend it. Also learned a lot about the opium trade.

Thursday 29th May

  • Went smashing up a concrete wicket at the Gymkhana cricket club in Chiang Mai with Nick the Melbournian. Naturally being an Australian Nick was much better at this sort of work than I. On the plus side I did finished up wearing a couple of tasty looking blisters as a badge of honour.
  • Doctors re: my right foot. Antibiotics which I didn't take, it went away a few days later.
  • Final night in Chiang Mai, spent with Sarah and Heather at the Riverside then the Brasserie watching the Thai Ghost of Hendrix play some ragtime, blues an reggae.

Wed 28th May

Internet day. It rained a lot.

Tuesday 27th May

A slow start due to a late one last night and being 'Bucca'd' by the cricket lads who certainly take an active role in the social side of things. Woke up with an inflamed right ankle. I don't remember bashing it on the bike but it feels very sensitive. I suspect I've been bitten by something nasty and my leg is slowly going to rot away. It's hot and red and inflamed. Should make a good meal for the ubiquitous and very sneaky mozzies that I'm sure are more stealthy than their European cousins.

Tuesday 27th May

A slow start due to a late one last night and being 'Bucca'd' by the cricket lads who certainly take an active role in the social side of things. Woke up with an inflamed right ankle. I don't remember bashing it on the bike but it feels very sensitive. I suspect I've been bitten by something nasty and my leg is slowly going to rot away. It's hot and red and inflamed. Should make a good meal for the ubiquitous and very sneaky mozzies that I'm sure are more stealthy than their European cousins.

Monday 26th May

Pai Loop, Take Two
Big day on the bike, determined to complete the Chiang Mai-Mae Rim-Samoeng-Wat Chan-Pai-Chiang Mai loop. It was a big-ey and it didn't help that I missed a crucial turnoff. The road signs in Thailand are in Hebbie Gebbie language that don't resemble English letters at all so it's nigh on impossible to navigate at crossroads, junctions and so forth. Great riding, the off road sections around Wat Chan were great because it was wet and boggy and even though it wasn't super technical at all by mountain bike standards everything happens a bit quicker and therefore I soon learned to keep the power on in the messy sections and had a few nervy moments where it could have all gone Pete Tong. Saw a big snake snake at least 5ft mainly black with a bit of white on it slithering across the road very close to where I broke down. I resisted the temptation to give it a headache. It was quite a surprise to see that.
  • Mega sore arse.
  • Very dirty face.
  • Food at Pai with very attractive Australian sex therapist. Amazing who you meet.
  • Pretty hairy road from Pai to Chiang Mai, ripped up a good couple of hundred k's on the very twisty roads that descends from the mountains around the Pai valley to Chiang Mai. The rains made the downhill hairpin studded road quite treacherous so I was careful on the tight bends and kept the speed down. Very sensible, but wearing just shorts and no protective gear I couldn't afford an 'off' on the tarmac.
  • Continued on my Chiang Mai cricket initiation and have whittled it down to a mere 35 shots now.

Sunday 25th May

  • Quiet day, picked up bike then went on a fruitless KH hunt.
  • Took my guitar and strummed away in the park SW corner of the Old City this is the are just within the walled part of the city, not that there's that much of the walls left, but the moat remains as do several of the city's gates notable the Tae Phae gate near my guesthouse.
  • Test match cricket at the UN Bar. Spoilt for choice on the cricket front, we've got three channels of the stuff, Eng v NZ, WI v Straya, then IPL, happy days!

Saturday 24th May

Pia Loop
An attempt on Chiang Mai-Samoeng-Wat Chan-Pai-Chiang Mai loop, a bit of an epic, about 400k's + on twisty-windy roads of various calibre from sealed tarmac to near impassable dirt tracks.

I Love The Village People
The Baja broke down in the middle of a torrential thunderstorm in the middle of nowhere. Had to be philosophical about it, what else can you be (it was a good lesson in patience and tolerance of other people's way of doing things as it turns out). I received several offers by villages of lifts to the nearest village which I finally accepted after realising I had no option but to call Mr Mechanics to come and rescue me. The pick up truck driver let me hop in the back whilst he and his young wife and baby sat in the cab. I was already soaked to the bone by now. The Thai man who spoke no English but emitted a big beaming smile and sympathetic eyes dropped me at the centre of the village - a collection of maybe 20 wooden shacks. I tried to tell them I needed a phone. 'Aha!' they seemed to say, 'We have a phone', I was escorted to a public phone box - result! They motioned me towards the phone box (by now a small crowd had gathered), but as I tried to force the stiff door open they began raising their voices and shaking their heads, hmm, so the only landline in the village doesn't work, great. My saviour then disappeared for half an hour. Had he gone bak to work I wondered? Has he just abandoned me? At leasst the rain had abaited and the sun was out, quickly evaporating the fresh rainfall. I sat in a shelter drying off with a small group of small Thai villagers looking on in wonderment. Thirty minutes later my man returned with a Thai lady in her 30's who spoke a smattering of English, get in! After explaining that I needed to call my people in Chiang Mai she then disappeared for half an hour. Damn, why do these people keep offering hope then just wandering off without any explanation? There was nothing I could do except hope that she'd gone somewhere that might help my cause. At this point some young boys overcame their initial shyness as I showed them my camera and let them take pictures of each other. They loved it and were soon pulling faces. The English speaking girl returned with the village mobile phone. Excellent! Sadly we couldn't get a signal as naturally we were in the mountains and in the middle of nowhere. One of the old boys of the village (who insisted on holding a conversation with me in Thai - why can't older people understand that if you can't speak their language then there's no point in speaking, they dont seem to comprehend this and just rabbit on and expect some sort of sensible reply which ofcouse I couldn't supply him with), the old boy knew where we could get a signal, and so, after trapsing up a hill we managed to get one bar's reception. After several disjointed phone calls between myself, Mr Mechanic and my personal translator we finally came to a agreement that one of the villagers would give me an my bike a life to Chiang Mai in a pick up truck. By this time another couple of hours had passed, I spent the time making paper aeroplanes with the village kids. I was totally at the mercy of the villagers who little by little and bit by bit had pieced together a rescue plan. I just had to be patient and despite it taking a long time to get anything sorted I was very grateful for all their help.

Rescued by Radish Farmers
Finally a pick up truck was scrambled and half the village piled into it and took me 3kms or so to my broken down bike. We met up with another pickup truck that was alreay full of radish in nylon bags. The radish farmers made a space in the middle of the truck for the bike and we hauled it into the back of the truck. Two ladies then climbed into a small void on the right hand side of the truck and I hunkered down on the left rear wheel arch. I have ha more comfortable journeys. The rain began again and we hid under small plastic sheets until it mercifully abated. Five hours later we made it back to Chiang Mai where I handed back my poorly bike. I waved goodbye to the village people who were off to sell their radish at a local night market. They smiled and waved. Today I met old Thailand, the real Thailand. The rest so far has been a western-influenced artificial Thailand that bares little resemblance to the Thailand I have seen today.

Game On
After all that culture I treated myself to some Test Cricket an ended up being initiated into the Chiang Mai cricket team thanks to Dean the Kiwi, Sandy the Aussie, Nick from Melbourne, Pete the remote control submarine operator, Chris a well spoken Chelsea fan and more. The initiation requires having 50 shots of sambucca before you get your first game. I took a few for the team, largely thanks to my Slippery Nipple training program at 2Dry.

Friday 23rd May

  • Motorbiking through Chom Tong, Doi Inthanon National Park, saw some big waterfalls and generally some beautiful mountain scenery. Clocked up quite a few kms
  • Ran out of petrol and got lost early doors in the sprawling 'same-same but different' super highways. A local went for some petrol for me and after a cooling bottle of Sprite I was on my way.
  • Found a KH in Chiang Mai and attended, received a warm welcome. Was funny to see all the sandals left outside!

Thursday 22nd May

Blagging It
Spent last night looking at a BBC guide to riding a motorbike (which is the brake, the clutch, the gears, how to start, how to stop and so one). Knew I'd have to blag that I could ride proficiently otherwise I'd have no option but to hire a 125cc rev and rip bike, which would be ok for the roads but my main reason for getting a bike was to do some dirt riding. As it turns out Mr Mechanic couldn't care less whether I could ride or not, they didn't even chek to see if I had a license. I took a bike for a test ride, repeating to myself 'clutch, gear, accelerate', and once I was up and running I'd try and remember how to change gear and most importantly how to stop, but for now priority number one was to ride out of the shop without looking like a complete chump. The shop fronted straight out onto Moon Muang Road which is probably the busiest road in downtown Chiang Mai. So, here goes ... after stalling the bike on my first attempt at setting off, I gave it some revs and pulled into the traffic, objective one complete! I practised stopping a couple of times when out of site of the shop and then headed back to the shop, signed a couple of forms and surrendered my passport for 4 days then performed a practise lap of old Chiang Mai which is basically a square walled and moated city. I'd circumnavigated three of the four walls dodging in and out of motorbikes, tuk tuks, cars, vans and trucks (speed is your friend I quickly learned) then I was pulled over by the Thai police in a sting operation. Fearing for the worst (I was sure I had been stitched up) I pulled over at the improvised blockade and pretended I knew how to stop and park the thing. After not falling off on my dismount it turns out they just wanted to see if had some kind of license, whih I do, a UK car license, but not a bike license. They then waved me on my way and told me where the nearest gas station was, so that was a bit of a result - phew!

First Ride
With my new found freedom and a full tank I roared up the mountain side and past the Doi Suthep temple on the hill at Doi Suthep, stalling embarrassingly only once at a major intersection, whoops. The temperature dropped dramatically as I searched for a way down the mountain off road. I found a couple of Hmong hill tribe villages which the Chiang Mai tourists get taken to in pickup trucks like lambs to the slaughter and get charged 1000 bhat each for the privilege of seeing refugees trying to sell them 'silver' jewelery and D&G sunglasses. My motorbike cost me less than 1000bhat a day to hire (which is a bargain as the mountain biking + share guide cost 2100 bhat). I quietly observed some boys at a local school play football together on the school field which is actually just a patch of hardened mud, none of them ever pass the ball which by all accounts is the Thai way (not very into team work when it comes to sports)!
A word to the wise: forget doing a 'tribal village' tour, hire a motorbike. Even the rev and rip Honda Dream/Waves (which anyone without any experience can ride) will get you up into the surrounding villages with complete freedom for a mere 200bhat a day.

The Samoeng Loop
The day was still relatively young so I cracked on to the famous 100km Samoeng Loop which takes you down into the beautiful Samoeng valley via a twisty-windy road. Ate at the local market where there was hardly a farang in sight and then did some offroading before heading up a mountain pass that overlooks the Samoeng valley and affords some great views. After this I hit the main road (a B-road in England) that drops down into Mae Rim. Ahem.

One other thing of note, as I was cruising along the road a few k's east of Mae Rim I had to have a double take as there were elephants roaming about in the adjacent jungle. I slammed on the brakes and did a u-turn and grabbed a couple of photo's of the elephants which I had at first thought were roaming around free but were actually chained to large trees as part of the Mae Song(?) Elephant Park. A place where elephants go for their R&R no doubt.

Wednesday 21st May

Still spent the day convalescing but did manage to change rooms. The guesthouse (SK House) didn't make any fuss and gave me the room across the open-air landing. The old matress needed burning as far as I am concerned and I ruined two sets of sheets by laying a bloody waste to at least a hundred bedbugs in various stages of their lifecycle (adult are brown and the size of your little finger nail, juveniles are white/transparent or red, depending on whether they've had a snack or not). Poked around finding out about motorbike rentals.

Big shout out to The Man With The Heavy for recommending I get a bike and another big shout out to David Unkovich who authors GT Rider ( for his most informative guide to motorbike touring in the Golden Triangle (where Burma, Thailand and Laos meet, so called because of it's mountainous beauty and the fact that lots of money has been made here as the opium growing capital of the world). Looks like Mr Mechanics is the place to be for bike rental, on a Honda 250XR Baja. Watched the Aussie State of Origin game, supporting Queensland who are currently 14-4 down at half time. That's enuough for now, nature calls!

Tuesday 20th May

During the middle of the night a strange thing happened, infact it happened more than once (don't get excited folks), unfortunately I had picked up my first case of Delhi Belly, and it was striking with a vengeance. The Shandyman was bedridden for 36hrs. It wasn't just the inconvenience of having to go to the loo (at high speed) over 900 times, OK, several times an hour every hour, and enduring some grade A stomach cramps in the process (the cramps felt like contractions, nay, I felt like Sigourney Weaver in Aliens), it was the added inconvenience of being eaten alive by an army of bed bugs at the same time. So here I am, bedridden (it hurt my stomach to move) and providing breakfast, lunch and tea for about 200 bloodthirsty parasites. It was a nightmare and without a doubt the worst day and a half of my trip so far. By 9pm the following night I managed to tentatively eat a yogurt and drink a pint of milk which for some reason my body was craving. I wondered if the toilet trips would eventually subside and rather like checking someones pulse began timing the intervals, 10 minutes went to 15, to 30, to an hour. Progress. I read on the internet about all the nasties you can contract via food and water and SE Asia seemed to have a monopoly on just about every nasty bacteria and virus that could possibly be ingested. I did find some good advice on a government health website that said travellers might well get Delhi Belly a week or so after landing in these parts. It's bang on a week since I landed in Bangkok so that would fit. The next piece of advice was to ride out the storm until the symptoms abated - usually a couple of days later and take no medicines so that the body can build up a natural immunity or tolerance to these new bugs. This is exactly what I did and sure enough the Shandy System is now totally immune to every bug this side of India. It wasn't pleasant though.

Spent another night feeding the bedbugs, it's horrible, leaving bite marks all over your body, back, shoulders, bum (is nothing sacred). Bedbugs are very hard to kill as their exoskeleton provides a robust shell, you see they need to be able to survive you rolling over on them in your sleep as they dig in and suck your blood for a good ten minutes. I vowed to change rooms in the morning now I was feeling stronger.

Monday 19th May

Mountain Biking around Chiang Mai

Jumped into the back of a pickup truck with a bike and we headed up mount Doi Duthep that looks down on Chiang Mai like a watchful guardian. Visakha Bucha Day is one of the most venerated days Buddhist festivals of the year. It's the day when Buddha is supposed to have been born, married and died on. So here in Chiang Mai the locals (that seems to include anyone dressed in a pyjamas and children) make a pilgrimage up the Doi Suthep mountain to the 'temple on the hill' that has sacred connotations because an elephant once climbed up it with a monk on it's back and died near the top. Anyhow, the locals head up there (it's a 15 kilometre uphill trudge on the road to 1250m altitude) the night before so that they can see sunrise as early as possible on this special day which is a public holiday in Thailand. We drove up the hill to the start of the bike ride and it was littered with people walking back down the hill after spending the night on the hill. It was also just plain littered as pilgrims discarded a myriad of plastic bottles, snack wrappers and so on. Bins are very underrated here in Thailand, however I am glad to report that there were gangs of school children following behind in the morning bagging up the strewn debris. The sealed road quickly turned into a dirt track as we almost summited Doi Suthep National Park at 1650m. We donned our protective gear and I had my brakes swapped around to the correct (English) way of doing things. We cruised to a coffee shop that vended coffee grown on the mountainside so I had to have a cup of that. I'm not a coffee connoisseur so don't ask me to comment on it's worthiness but it was dark brown and tasted like coffee to me. Eyes wide open we then hammered down some pretty technical singletrack following our guide. I should mention that this is low season and there were only two of us on the ride, perfect. We quickly found our natural order with me tailing the guide all the way and the other, competent Irish lad bringing up The Rear. There was a small amount of uphillery which was not advertised in the brochure, these sections were short sharp pushes to join up otherwise disparate sections of singletrack. There were some significant drop offs, and one medium sized jump with a messy landing site but generally the riding was not massively challenging if you are an 'expert' rider. This was the hardest advertised ride and I'd say it just about had enough grin factor and plenty of possibilities for some big 'offs' into trees. The tracks were slippery with the general terrain being tracks which doubled as water run-off gulleys so they were rutted and rootey and the more I think about it it was quite challenging. Maybe if I'd have stacked it (which the Irish lad did several times) I'd have to rated it more technically. It was adequate if done as fast a possible. The bikes weighed about 3 tonnes each and my front suspension and brake were not fully functioning but that added to the excitement. After a couple of hours (could have done it in much less if we didn't have the uphill sections and coffee stop), we were 1200m lower in Chiang Mai. The heavens turned black and as we devoured our late lunch it started belting it down. We had the option of going back up the mountain and doing another ride (for another 1000 bhat of course). Now I'm a glutton for punishment but doing those tracks in the wet would just be a complete lottery, suicide.

Super Technique
After the rain abated my Shandy-Senses started tingling, what could this mean, is someone in danger? Is there a nearby microbrewery that I wasn't aware of? Or could it be that Test Match Cricket was just about to start on Star Sports 6? After a lightening piece of research and map reading I realised that I was a mere 50m from Tuskers Bar which claimed to have every sporting channel on earth. I rocked on over, not good, the TV wasn't even on and there were no customers at the bar. Two sentences of Thai-glish later and I was licking back to the opening salvo in the three test series between England and New Zealand. Feeling rather pleased with myself I patted myself on the back and settled in for 6 hours, only punctuated by a swim in my guesthouse pool during the lunch break. It was a joy to listen to Bumble explaining to Sir Ian Botham that sunglasses are a fashion item and the reason why Straussy just dropped a catch. Finshed a fine day off at the THC rooftop bar (a Rasta themed bar overlooking downtown Chiang Mai) with Benjamin from Colorado, a very eco aware and responsible fella after my own heart.

Sunday 18th May

Today was Baan Thai cooking class day. I was ready and alert for my 9:30 pick up. We settled in to our new surroundings and in no time were whisked off to a local food market which was brimming with fresh fruit, veg, rices, meats and fish. The market experience was actually really useful as we had explained what all the different types of fruit and veg and spices were. Now I need not fear whilst walking in a Thai market - previously the sheer array and my complete unfamiliarity with most fruits and veg's on sale put me off buying or trying anything. Our market guide gently guided us through the weird and wonderful. After samplings some of the exotic fruit from the market, which isn't exotic or expensive at al to the locals (ie dragon fruit, mango (Jez!) and tonnes more) we were allowed to pick which meals we fancied making. I opted for:

1. Tom Yum soup, a kind of hot and sour Northern Thai speciality. You could whose how spicy you wanted it by adjusting the chilli ratio from 1-5, I went for a very boring 3.
2. Spring rolls - a piece of cake, 2 mins to prepare and 30 seconds to cook.
3. Deep fried banana. Tasted a lot better than I had thought.
4. Pad Thai (had to!) which is all cooked in the same wok, meat, then veges and spices, then an egg, then the noodahhhhhhhh.
5. Thai Green Curry. From scratch, involved a lot of chopping and then some pestle and mortar action which can easily be replaced by a food processor back home. Basically you bash up the finely chopped herbs and spices to replease the moisture and make a paste. You can then refrigerate or freeze some of the green curry paste (it's a bit of a faff to make so it makes sense to prepare large batches of it). Once the light oil is hot you throw in the meat, then the spices, then the vegies and add coconut milk to taste, altering the taste to your palate with fish sauce (usually 1 tbsp per portion) and then 1tsp of sugar to balance out the flavours.

The secrets to Thai cooking are threefold:
1. Balance of flavour - using fish sauce(usually 1tbsp), sugar (1tsp) chillies (to taste) and coconut milk (to taste) to even out the flavours of a dish to your personal palate.
2. Use fresh ingredients - Thailand is blessed with the sort of climate and soils to grow fruit and veg in glorious abundance. Herbs and spices are in ample supply and it is the use of such fresh ingredients that really sets the dish apart. They have multiple types of ginger, all of which are used in different dishes for example and are generally more delicate/subtle in flavour than the English ginger. They have different garlic too (smaller cloves and less tough skins) and just lob in the whole lot in, skins an all. Kafir leaves are used extensively (a citrus flavour somewhere inbetween a lime and a lemon). The Thais have multiple versions of aubergines, from large european ones to tiny pea sized ones that are more decorative than edible.
3. Chop things very fine - to make a green curry paste for example requires some serious chopping time of lemon grass, chillies and so one. Then the powder is ground down quite vigorously in a pestle and mortar into a paste as the grinding action releases moisture from the plants.

Another thing I should note is that not all things that you find in a Thai curry are supposed to be eaten. The tough basil leaves for instance are just for flavour as are the baby aubergines which are pea-shape in appearance are not for human consumption but the Thai's don't tell you this when they serve it up and must think all farang are odd for eating the inedible, meanwhile we politely eat the lot. Ofcourse some people don't know this and wolf the lot, which is fine too.

Felt rather soporific, had an early night as a result.

Saturday 17th May

Rather slow start today given a late night on it last night culminating in a White Russian Super Nova at the handily located VW Beetle bar know as 'The Van'. What a great innovation and you get free popcorn and entire Oasis albums played for free. A word of caution, this place is next door to Spiceys, the number one Thai Lady pick up point which is rammed full of gimpy looking farang and tiny little Thai girls. There's a no ladyboy policy at Spiceys so they all hang around outside at The Van. I have a strict policy of talking only to farang in such zones, except the free popcorn hander-outer who deserves a special mention. Missed out on DH biking but the owner understood that I had had a big night and said I could do it on Monday instead. The rest of the day was spent snoozing and generally recovering. No idea what I did in the evening, if there was cricket on the telly I guess I was watching that!

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Current Whereabouts: Northern Laos

Right kids, I made it back to civilization (Vientiane, the capital of Laos) in one piece just about. I'll attach some pictures. The final two days of riding were very difficult due to weather and 'road' conditions (30kms in six hours is not what I would call rapid - massive credit to the bike though it took an almighty hammering) and also because I ran out of cash and couldn't afford to eat or drink for two days. As King Kev would say: 'Roller Coaster'

Next stop Thailand, I need a rest!

Sawadee (Hello) one and all.

I'm currently slumming it in the Maly Hotel in Phonsovan, famed for it's 'Plain of Jars' sites which are basically big empty stone jars that are about 2000 years old, no one knows what they were for, best guess is funeral urns. I was a bit disappointed when I showed up as I thought it was going to be about beer. Needless to say I had a few jars of my own last night with me main man Phet Long, an engineer. His name means 'second diamond'.

Having spent a few days on the tourist trail I had to get out and find the real Laos, meet the real Laotians. As such I have hired a motorbike and am doing a DIY-tour of Northern Laos. I 'borrowed' the itinery from a Laos based enterprise, I'm 3/4 the way thru, having ridden in some very remote places and taken my time stopping longer than one night in some places (Vieng Xay the Hidden City for example). The village children are an absolute delight, without fail waving at me and shouting 'sawadee' as I cruise on through. I've been through hundreds of tiny little places, it's always a joy to see the children's beaming faces despite the poverty in which they live - most don't go to school, they help the family who invariably are subsistence farmers.

It has been an education for me, and as things have turned out I've been able to give a little bit back. In Sam Neua near the Vietnam border I gave English lessons to two students, and last night (Wed) I met the education adviser for Xieng Khouhang province who invited me to teach two classes of 25 children how to converse in English. It was very rewarding, and the least I can do for this amazing country and the incredible people who live here.

Today I'm riding south to either Pakxan, or, if the weather closes in, half way - to Thathom where there is no hot water or electricity, should be fun. Enroute I will visit Mouang Khoune, an ancient city with Buddhist relics that the Americans kindly bombed the life out of in the 'secret war' against Laos and the naughty Commies. Indeed there are bomb craters everywhere around here, Loas being the mosts bombed nation in the world. Did you know that for nine years solid the Americans dropped a plane load of bombs every eight minutes night and day onto Laos - more than all the bombs dropped in WWII? The sad thing is that half of them haven't gone off yet and so the place is littered with unexploded ordinance (UXOs). Whilst I was in Vieng Xay the UXO team blew up three UXOs, one of them was incredibly loud and sent a mushroom cloud of fall out into the sky. I also saw a crater 80m in diameter, the size of a football pitch, the result of a 6 tonne bomb. Nine years solid my friends, and the Laotians still won! My guest house has quite an array of shells, rockets, machine guns and so forth adorning the walls and gateposts and they have even made a flower display out of an empty rocket shell. The amazing thing is that Laotians welcome Americans with open arms despite the atrocities. They really are the most humble and forgiving people. I can't help but admire them.

Hope all is well wherever you are, see most of you in July. Apologies for lack of private emails, it's not easy getting electricity around here, nevermind the internet!

The Dude